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Without stronger gun laws, a researcher says Maine is ‘lucky’ it’s had no major shootings

In this Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016 photo, Bob Hagopian works in his gun shop in downtown Madison, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
In this Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016 photo, Bob Hagopian works in his gun shop in downtown Madison, Maine.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Maine is abnormal when it comes to guns. Roughly half of its households have them, according to research, but unlike many states with such a large supply, it sees relatively few fatal shootings each year.

But in the wake of another round of deadly mass shootings that have convulsed the nation — including in Uvalde and Buffalo, and another just this week at an Oklahoma hospital — Maine Public asked a gun violence expert what truly sets the state apart.

The answer: not much.

While there are some trends that may make gun violence less likely here, the state is “lucky” it hasn’t seen a high-profile mass shooting, according to Michael Rocque, a criminologist at Bates College who grew up in Maine and has studied the circumstances around mass shootings.

Michael Rocque, associate professor of sociology at Bates College.
Bates College
Michael Rocque, associate professor of sociology at Bates College.

Could Maine see a mass shooting?

In short, yes.

In an interview, Rocque noted that it’s still relatively easy for someone to get a firearm in Maine, despite a compromise “yellow flag” law passed a couple years ago that allows them to be seized from people with a documented mental health condition who are found to have threatened themselves or others.

He pointed to another rural state with lax firearm restrictions, Alaska, that does have many gun deaths.

“It's not like we're the same state, but in terms of population being spread out, cold, northern states, you know, we're not that different from Alaska,” Rocque said. “There doesn't seem to be much that would make Maine special in terms of being immune to mass public shootings. I would say that we have been lucky that mass public shootings haven't taken place.”

As part of his research, Rocque has identified a couple cases in which people threatened to shoot up places such as schools and businesses in Maine.

And the state has had at least two events that could be classified as “mass shootings” in the last decade, in Madison and Saco, which each left at least four people dead. But they were tied to domestic violence in private settings, which are among the reasons that many devastating shootings don’t grab national headlines.

Additionally, firearms obtained in northern Maine fueled the deadliest mass shooting in Canada’s history. After a 51-year-old man obtained two handguns and a semiautomatic rifle in the town of Houlton, he used them during a rampage that left 22 people dead in Nova Scotia two years ago.

“We have to also consider that the lax gun laws also make it easy for people to get guns and commit deeds elsewhere,” says Rocque, who notes that there have been many other instances of guns obtained in Maine being used in violent acts outside the state.

Why has Maine had relatively few gun deaths?

While studies have estimated that about half of Maine households have guns — above the national average of 32%, according to Boston University data — it’s part of a small cluster of states with below-average gun death rates despite that abundance.

Other states in that narrow category include Vermont, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

“We're pretty confident that Maine does have a relatively high gun ownership rate, and yet a very low, especially, homicide rate, very, very low, one of the lowest in the nation,” Rocque says.

Meanwhile, states such Alaska, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Mississippi, Tennessee and Utah have gun ownership and death rates that are both above-average.

Maine’s outlier status could owe to a couple characteristics associated with lower rates of gun homicides, according to Rocque. That includes a spread out population that’s not as concentrated in urban areas, leaving fewer opportunities for people — especially young men — to come into contact and clash.

In a woodsy state with a strong hunting culture, Rocque also suspects that a relatively high number of guns are rifles or shotguns designed for taking down animals, making it less likely they could be fired for other reasons.

But while Maine has had little gun violence compared to the nation as a whole, it and Vermont still stand out from the rest of the Northeast. On a per capita basis, every other New England state has a lower gun death rate, as do New York and New Jersey, according to the U.S. CDC.

How are people dying from guns?

While guns are sometimes used to murder people in Maine, the bigger threat is suicide.

In 2020, Maine saw 153 gun deaths, or 10.4 gun deaths per 100,000 people, according to federal data. That rate was lower than all but 10 other states. But the vast majority of those — all but 21 — were self-inflicted.

While Maine’s dispersed population may help prevent people from shooting one another, Rocque says it could be having the opposite effect on suicides.

“The less people are sort of connected to one another, the more suicides that you tend to see. And so it's something like a social isolation factor that's going on there,” he says.

He also thinks there could be other factors, such as Maine’s relatively large population of veterans, who are at higher risk for suicide.

What policies would help prevent gun violence?

As polarized as the debate over gun control has become, Rocque thinks there are effective policies that could still get consensus both in Maine and nationally — and all the better if they can be applied consistently across multiple states.

There is research suggesting that so-called red flag laws — which allow guns to be taken from individuals a court has determined are dangerous — could help reduce suicides, Rocque said.

Maine’s less restrictive yellow-flag law, passed in 2019, has only been used 13 times as of last January, according to the Bangor Daily News. But Rocque is still encouraged by those numbers.

Research by Rocque and others has also found that requiring permits for gun ownership is associated with lower risk of mass public shootings.

If anything, Maine lawmakers and voters have gone in the opposite direction over the last decade, allowing most adults to carry concealed handguns without a permit and rejecting a referendum that would have required background checks on private gun sales.

Now, Rocque says it’s “a little bit hard to reconcile” the fact that Mainers must take a safety course and receive a license to hunt, but not do the same thing when the presumed goal is either target practice or self-defense.

“Lots of the conversation has been about good guys and bad guys with guns,” he says. “If you believe in that narrative, then it shouldn't be controversial to figure out, you know, who is a potential ‘bad guy,’ and let's figure out a way to make it more difficult for them to obtain firearms. That shouldn't be controversial to take that step.”