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Maine delegation expresses some support for gun legislation after Texas school shooting

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U.S. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins.

Members of Maine's congressional delegation reacted with horror to the school shooting in Texas that left 19 children and two adults dead. But with Congress seemingly locked in partisan gridlock over gun issues, members were unclear whether this latest mass shooting will change any of the political dynamics in Washington.

Three of Maine's four members of Congress were serving on Capitol Hill in 2013 after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings spawned a major push for new gun laws. Independent Sen. Angus King, Republican Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree all voted or supported a bipartisan measure that would have required background checks for most gun sales. But the measure failed to get enough Republican support to get around the Senate filibuster.

Pingree, who represents Maine's left-leaning 1st Congressional District, would like to see the Senate vote on a background checks expansion that passed the House last year with her support. But it's unclear that will happen, and the odds of getting around that 60-vote threshold appear long. Pingree called it “infuriating” and "barbaric" that nine years after Sandy Hook, such mass shootings are still happening.

"It's just really a broken system if public policy and elected officials cannot fix this and do more to prevent this from happening,” Pingree said. But she said the problem is the gun lobby — most notably the National Rifle Association — blocks every proposal by portraying them as a “slippery slope.”

“I have a feeling that if we could pass one bill and people could get through that process, build some bipartisan alliances, then we could pass the next bill and the next bill,” Pingree said in an interview.

But Pingree's colleague in the House, 2nd District Rep. Jared Golden, was one of just a handful of Democrats to vote against that background check bill last year. At the time, Golden compared the bill to a background checks ballot initiative that failed in Maine in 2016, largely because of opposition in the more rural 2nd District.

Golden was not available for an interview on Wednesday. But in a statement released by his office, the Democrat said he won't join other elected officials who are "pointing fingers and making recriminations against one another" following the Texas shooting.

“I won’t be joining in that behavior as I don’t believe it does anything to bring about any kind of change, nor can it heal the pain of the families of these children,” Golden said. “In the days ahead, as more information about this shooting becomes clear, I will be talking with my colleagues and with my constituents about what could have been done to stop it and what realistic policies could be considered to help prevent another senseless act of violence like this from happening again in the future.”

King reiterated his support for a so-called universal background check and closing loopholes that allow people to purchase a firearm without one, such as at a gun show. He also expressed support for so-called "red flag" laws that allows police to temporarily confiscate firearms from people who have been deemed a threat to themselves or others from possessing or acquiring guns. Maine has had such a law on the books for a few years.

"In my work, I try to find a balance on complicated issues, such as this one,” King said in written comments. “There are currently a number of proposals that have been introduced in Congress to address gun violence, and I intend to continue to engage my colleagues on them as I evaluate each of them on their ability to reduce gun violence while respecting the Second Amendment and the rights of law-abiding gun owners. One of the basic purposes of the Constitution, as stated in the Preamble, is ‘to insure domestic tranquility,’ and I believe that background checks and the other provisions mentioned above help us to do so without violating the letter or the spirit of the Second Amendment."

Collins also expressed an interest in federal "red flag" legislation.

“Although we are still waiting for more details, it is hard to believe that someone who would do this was not severely mentally ill,” Collins said in a statement. “Congress should look at enacting a yellow flag law based on the one we have in Maine, which has due process rights and also involves a medical professional in the decision.”

Collins also asked FBI Director Christopher Wray about the issue during a congressional hearing on Wednesday, noting that Maine’s so-called “yellow flag” law requires a medical assessment of an individual before their firearms could be confiscated to protect their due process rights.

Wray replied that if more states adopted such laws, the FBI would have to work to make sure that information is included in the federal background check database. But he says such measures are consistent with the old saying, "If you see something, say something."

“But what we really need right now in this country is if you see something about somebody, people to say something,” Wray said. “And if they do, whether it through statutes like the one in Maine or some other mechanism, that can be quite effective."

It was unclear if or when Congress could take up gun legislation.