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Quadruple homicide likely to prompt scrutiny of Maine’s gun, criminal justice laws

A lone bouquet of flowers marks a desolate makeshift memorial at the end of a driveway at a Bowdoin, Maine, home, Wednesday, April 19, 2023, where police say four people were killed. A Maine man who police say killed four people in a home and then shot three others randomly on a busy highway had been released days earlier from prison, a state official said Wednesday.
Rodrique Ngowi
/
AP
A lone bouquet of flowers marks a desolate makeshift memorial at the end of a driveway at a Bowdoin, Maine, home, Wednesday, April 19, 2023, where police say four people were killed. A Maine man who police say killed four people in a home and then shot three others randomly on a busy highway had been released days earlier from prison, a state official said Wednesday.

There were more questions than answers on Wednesday about how a convicted felon charged with fatally shooting four people in Bowdoin obtained a gun just days after being released from prison.

Maine State Police Col. William Ross declined to answer questions Wednesday afternoon about how and where Joseph Eaton got his hands on the gun or guns he allegedly used to kill his parents and two family friends in Bowdoin as well as to injure three people traveling southbound on Interstate 295 in Yarmouth.

Eaton has a long criminal record in Maine and other states, including convictions for assault, domestic violence and assaulting law enforcement. And the felony convictions on his record prohibited him from legally owning or possessing a firearm.

"We're still looking through a lot of that,” Ross said during a news conference in Augusta. “Like I said, it's an active investigation. We had four autopsies today, which took up a lot of time. But I think we will get to all of those questions with answers at some point, but it won't be today."

But as frequently happens following massing shootings, the incident is raising questions about whether more could or should have been done.

"The sad truth is that our state is not immune to gun violence, whether it be firearm suicide or accidental shootings involving children,” said Rep. Vicky Doudera, a Camden Democrat who serves as co-chair of the Legislature's Gun Safety Caucus.

Doudera said the state is rightfully grieving for those who were killed and injured. And while she will wait for the results of the investigation, she said that gun violence is on the rise and there are many people in Maine who are gaining access to firearms when they shouldn't.

"We also need to take a hard look at whether our own laws are adequate to protect both the public and law enforcement,” she said. “The bottom line is we need to keep guns out of the hands of those who shouldn't have them."

Maine consistently ranks as among the safest states in the nation in terms of violent crimes involving guns. But firearms bought, sold and stolen in Maine are frequently linked to gun violence in other states — a trend that gun control advocates say is clearly linked to laws such as not requiring background checks on private gun sales in the state. And the prevalence of guns in Maine homes means that people who are suicidal often have easier access to firearms.

David Trahan, who is executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, is no stranger to the debates over guns and gun safety both in his current capacity and as a former state lawmaker. He has fought against multiple gun control measures but also helped negotiate other major measures. The latter includes the recent “yellow flag” law that lays out a process for police to seek a court order to temporarily confiscate firearms from someone deemed by a medical professional to pose a potential threat to themselves or others.

Trahan pointed out that Maine’s yellow flag law would not have come into play in this tragedy because Eaton was already prohibited from possessing guns. And he said one of the first things that struck him, as he read about Tuesday’s events, is why Eaton was back on the street at all given his lengthy and violent criminal history.

Police said that Eaton was released from the Maine Correctional Center just last week — and picked up by his now-deceased mother — after serving time for an assault charge.

"I think in a sense, and I don't know all of the details yet, but maybe it was our judicial system or incarceration system that we need to look at,” Trahan said.

But he also acknowledged that such incidents should prompt scrutiny of laws, including whether they were followed in this case. And he added that even before Tuesday's events, he'd been talking with Gov. Janet Mills and House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross about potential progress on addressing gun safety. As one example, Trahan said there might be opportunities to tighten up Maine’s laws targeted so-called "straw purchases," which is when someone who can legally own a firearm purchases a gun for a prohibited person.

"On the gun rights side of it, it's hard to see the violence going on around the country and then tell a law-abiding citizen that they need to give up their firearm rights to make it safer when they are seeing violence all around them,” Trahan said. “It's scary. So we have to strike a balance between the honest people who are doing it right, living by the law, and the violent people who want to do harm."

Lawmakers are debating several gun-related measures this legislative session. But gun control bills typically face an uphill challenge in Maine because of the state's culture and historic relationship with firearms.

Mills’ office is steering clear of any policy debates in the immediate aftermath of this week’s events. The only statement from Mills so far was a tweet on Tuesday in which she expressed prayers and condolences for impacted families and thanked law enforcement for their quick response.

In a joint statement, Republicans in the Legislature said they were “outraged by this senseless tragedy” while expressing condolences to victims’ families and thanks for law enforcement’s response. But they also expressed an eagerness to get to the bottom of what led to Tuesday’s events.

“As authorities seek answers as to why this happened, the question of how this happened is just as important,” read the GOP statement. “Current federal and state laws should never have allowed a person with an extensive criminal history to obtain the firearm he used to commit these heinous acts. We look forward to our excellent law enforcement personnel providing us with answers.”