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In the wake of the Uvalde school shooting, here’s what you need to know about guns in Maine

Students at Yarmouth High School observe a moments of silence in honor of those killed in the Parkland, Fla., school shooting during a walkout to protest gun violence, Wednesday, March 14, 2018, in Yarmouth, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
Students at Yarmouth High School observe a moments of silence in honor of those killed in the Parkland, Fla., school shooting during a walkout to protest gun violence, Wednesday, March 14, 2018, in Yarmouth, Maine.

As the nation reels from the news of21 deaths in a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, along with two other deadly shootings at a Buffalo, New York grocery store and a California church, many are asking: What can be done?

The United States has the highest rate of firearm ownership in the world, and also by far the most gun deaths. Increasingly, gun violence is being considered a public health crisis.

While there are many calls for national gun safety legislation, these bills routinely die in Congress.

Gun policy varies by state, with varying outcomes. Maine is one of the few outlier states with above average gun ownership, yet relatively few gun deaths, according to various sources.

Some groups even say it’s possible a tragedy like the one at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde could have been prevented with gun laws like Maine’s.

Here is where the state stands on gun ownership, crime and laws.

Maine has above average gun ownership …

Precise data is difficult to acquire — there is no central registry of firearms in Maine, which is illegal to compile under state law. But studies have shown that a high proportion of Maine households do have guns.

Recent research undertaken by the RAND Corporation and Boston University has estimated that guns are in about half of Maine households, compared with about a third nationally. That estimate is derived using numbers that correlate with gun ownership, such as suicides by gun and hunting licenses per capita.

… and below average gun crime

According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 153 people died by firearm in Maine in 2020. That’s a rate of 10.4 deaths per 100,000 people — lower than all but 10 other states.

But the vast majority of those, 132, are suicides, or about 86% of firearm-related deaths in the state. At a rate of 9.8 suicides per 100,000, Maine ranks 23rd highest among states.

Maine has relatively permissive gun laws …

Maine has some of the laxest gun laws in the northeast. In 2015, it became one of just three states in the region — along with Vermont and New Hampshire — with a “constitutional carry” law allowing many adults to carry concealed firearms without a permit.

While the state leans Democratic, its rural voters have blocked at least one significant gun restriction in recent years: a 2016 referendum to require background checks on private gun sales. The lack of such a requirement remains controversial, recently coming under scrutiny when guns acquired in northern Maine were used in Canada’s worst mass shooting.

Despite wide support for gun rights, Maine lawmakers have shown some willingness to prevent firearms from getting into the wrong hands. In the wake of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, they passed a compromise “yellow flag” law that allows guns to be seized if a medical worker verifies that someone with mental health challenges could harm themselves or others.

… but many consider the state relatively safe

The state’s yellow flag law is a “bridge in a debate in which there's been no progress for a long, long time,” says David Trahan, executive director of the Sportman’s Alliance of Maine.

The law is saving lives and protecting constitutional freedoms, he says, and he believes it could make a difference in other states as well. Trahan is hopeful Maine’s congressional delegation might use the yellow flag law as a model when debating changes at the federal level.

“Maine's the safest place in the nation to live, and that's not a coincidence. We do things right up here. If they want to listen they might be able to learn how to make their state safer,” he says.

… and others say more should be done in Maine

But Geoff Bickford, executive director of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, describes the yellow flag law as “woefully insufficient.” It centers around receiving a mental illness diagnosis from a medical professional, which Bickford said may not apply to everyone who threatens or conducts a school shooting.

“What we will continue to push for, and I know that there will be a big push this year in Augusta, is to bring in a real red flag law,” he said.

Family members are often better equipped to detect short periods of depression that may prompt someone to consider taking tragic action, Bickford said. And hospitals and police departments aren't often equipped to take on what he says is an onerous process under the current law.

As for the state’s relative safety, Bickford is more guarded.

“We have by luck and fortitude and the grace of God not had a school shooting in this state. There's no reason to think that it won't happen here. In fact, there's every reason to think that it will,” he says.

The group Gun Owners of Maine agrees the state could make some legislative changes to prevent a tragedy like the one that happened in Texas from happening here. But that's the extent of their agreement.

In an email, organization president Brett Bulmer says schools in Maine are soft targets because they're gun free zones. 

“People on a quest to inflict terror almost exclusively go where they are unlikely to encounter effective resistance,” he says. “We should enact laws allowing trained school personnel and individuals with valid concealed weapons permits to carry concealed firearms on school property. We should actually protect our children, rather than continuing to pretend a ‘no weapons allowed’ sign means anything to evil and deranged people.”

But Jonathan Shapiro, the director of the Maine School Safety Center, says the state's schools are safe.

“All of the data indicates that when students have a strong relationship in the sense of wellbeing and connectedness to their schools, the school is a safer place to be,” he says. “And I think Maine certainly excels at that."

Maine's Education Department created the center two years ago, a recommendation from an independent study that reviewed the state's school security measures during the aftermath of the Sandy Hook elementary tragedy.

All Maine schools are supposed to have an emergency operations plan, which Shapiro says should include details on how the school will work with local police, fire and law enforcement agencies on how to respond to an incident such as a mass shooting. 

As for what comes next, both Bickford and Trahan say they’ve been fielding calls from Mainers, local legislators and others who are angry and horrified by the recent events in Texas. 

“What a sad, sad day when this happens. I feel the same frustrations everyone else feels. These are beautiful, young lives that deserved an opportunity to live, and they’re now gone. All of us want safe communities; we’ve got to figure this out.”

Members of Maine’s Gun Safety Caucus are focused on these issues, Bickford says, but it’s unclear whether anything will change. 

“It’s too early to tell,” he says. “But there’s obviously the immensely depressing quality of our reaction in this country, as a nation, that this just happens again and again. You have one side that screams for change, but change is not in offing. And you have another side that offers thoughts and prayers and takes hundreds of thousands of dollars from the gun lobby. People are getting wise to this and fed up more and more.” 

Andrew Catalina is manager of digital news, responsible for editing and producing news content on all of Maine Public's digital platforms, in addition to myriad other news- and content-related roles.