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Maine political candidates weigh in on guns and mental health after horrific school shooting

Investigators search for evidences outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Desperation turned to heart-wrenching sorrow for families of grade schoolers killed after an 18-year-old gunman barricaded himself in their Texas classroom and began shooting, killing several fourth-graders and their teachers.
Jae C. Hong
Investigators search for evidences outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Desperation turned to heart-wrenching sorrow for families of grade schoolers killed after an 18-year-old gunman barricaded himself in their Texas classroom and began shooting, killing several fourth-graders and their teachers.

This week’s tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, has unfortunately sparked what is by now a predictable – and predictably partisan – debate on Capitol Hill about how to deal with mass shootings and gun violence.

The political response here in Maine largely fell along the same lines, with some notable exceptions. Democrats called for stronger gun control measures; Republicans said mass shootings are manifestations of a mental health crisis, not the country’s relaxed gun laws.

Given the stark divisions in Congress, it’s extremely unlikely that any major gun control measures will emerge this year despite uproar over the 19 child deaths in Texas and the Buffalo mass shooting. There are bipartisan discussions around potential middle-ground bills, however, such as on “red flag” laws that allow police to confiscate or deny guns to people deemed to be threats to themselves and others.

“I don’t want to say that I’m optimistic or that I’m pessimistic, but there is a possibility that maybe this time we can muster the votes necessary,” Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent, said Thursday on the chances for any gun-related measures.

You can find more about how Maine’s congressional delegation responded to the Texas shooting here.

But November’s elections will impact the prospects of gun-related policy changes in Maine and nationally. So we checked in with candidates for Congress and governor on where they stood on: expanded background checks, bans on specific firearms or gun paraphernalia, “red flag” laws and mental health.

Everyone expressed horror at the shootings and sympathies for affected families. Some provided detailed responses, others . . . less so. Neither Democratic Gov. Janet Mills nor former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, for example, outlined any specific policies or even mentioned the word “gun” in their responses.

Former Gov. Paul LePage, Republican candidate for governor:

“We have ongoing problems with mental health in our society. I spent many years in Waterville as a volunteer helping the homeless and people who were experiencing mental illness. As a Governor, I recognized this issue. I supported a new facility in Windham which would have had beds for people facing drug addiction and mental illness. Unfortunately, this project did not move forward under the current Governor. We must recognize the need to have more treatment for those facing mental illness.”

Gov. Janet Mills, Democrat (statement from her spokeswoman Lindsay Crete):

“The Governor’s focus has always been to bring together people of different views – including Democrats, Republicans, public safety officials, public health officials, members of the judicial system, advocates, community members, and more – to implement lasting public safety reforms. That is the approach she took in 2019 when the Legislature overwhelmingly approved Maine’s yellow flag law, and that is the approach she will continue to take with any proposal that comes before the Legislature.”

Ed Thelander, Republican candidate for 1st Congressional District:

"This should never have happened. It's clear that members of our society are struggling with severe mental health problems, and our existing mental health programs need significant improvement. I know that if we were doing a better job serving people and integrating them into our society, many of the problems we face, including gun violence, would be lessened. After my service as a Navy SEAL, I was spurred to become a Lincoln County Sheriff's deputy after seeing law enforcement participate in an active shooter drill at my kids' school. I have seen the damage that wanton violence does to communities around the world, so I deeply appreciate the first responders who put their lives on the line to keep us safe. When I'm in Congress, I'll work to find bipartisan solutions to the mental health crisis we face."

Rep. Chellie Pingree, Democratic incumbent in 1st Congressional District (excerpted from interview):

“We have a lot of bills that we've passed in the House that are on the table (in the Senate) to be debated. And I think it's time to take them up again and give Americans a sense of what our colleagues across the aisle are refusing to vote on or refusing to vote for: simple things like background checks or preventing mentally ill people from buying guns. There is just such a long list of things that are practical that we could do around safe storage, or ending the immunity for firearm companies . . . Because of it being blocked, we can't invest in public health research on gun safety. We need to treat this as a public health emergency and move forward . . .

The one thing we know is that these pieces of legislation that we've been debating are very popular . . . on both sides (and) all political parties all over the country. So something like a background check bill, it just seems like it should be moving through the Senate. And I think some of these other bills, we need to take them up again in the House, send them back to the Senate. And people need to hear from their constituents.”

Former Rep. Bruce Poliquin, Republican primary candidate for 2nd Congressional District:

“Our schools should be encouraged and incentivized to better secure their facilities. In 2018, Congress passed and President Trump signed into law the Student, Teachers, and Officers Preventing (STOP) School Violence Act. It provided special funding for schools across the country to hire and train professional security personnel as well as to add or improve lighting, fencing, door locks, metal detectors, cameras, and other technology. Many elementary, middle and high schools took advantage of this funding to help keep their students safe. During the last two years, approximately $15 billion of COVID relief funds have flowed to Maine state and local governments . . . Augusta has been flush with this federal taxpayer money. Certainly, some could be used to help better secure our schools.

I understand and appreciate why some administrators resist the presence of armed security personnel on school property. However, I recommend they rethink this position. Professionally trained school resource officers make a big difference at many schools. They form healthy relationships with students and parents, and serve as a visible deterrent to those who wish harm to our kids. . . .

A common denominator in many instances of gun violence is mental illness and/or instability . . . Medical professionals, law enforcement and government officials must continue to look for better ways to keep guns out of the hands of individuals with criminal records or mental illness while protecting their HIPPA privacy and Constitutional rights.”

Liz Caruso, Republican primary candidate for 2nd Congressional District:

“I am an unequivocal supporter of the 2nd Amendment, and I fully support the Maine Constitution's clear directive that ‘Every citizen has a right to keep and bear arms and this right shall never be questioned.’ . . . Tragedies like those recently in Texas and Buffalo are horrific symptoms of severe cultural problems that we face as a nation, particularly mental health issues, and those problems will not be alleviated by restricting the fundamental constitutional freedoms of the millions of law-abiding gun owners in this nation.

Our first line of defense against violent crime is law enforcement, and we need to stop the nonsense talk of ‘defunding the police.’ . . . Law enforcement should be given the resources they need to do their jobs and should be provided adequate training to identify and properly deal with mental health issues and the risks to society that these issues create. Law enforcement doesn't need to become social services, but they can help – with adequate funding and training – by identifying high-risk behavior and taking steps to ensure those people receive the help they need before becoming a threat to society.

Our county is so divided right now, and young people's minds are so polluted from a narcissistic and violent culture, that it's no wonder we have unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression. Our path forward is not through the halls of the Capitol, or the State House, but through our living rooms and communities.”

Rep. Jared Golden, Democratic incumbent in 2nd Congressional District:

“Right now there are many elected officials pointing fingers and making recriminations against one another. 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. 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.”

Poliquin declines debate invite

The only congressional primary in Maine this year is among the two Republicans vying to challenge Golden in the 2nd District.

Maine Public invited both Bruce Poliquin (who represented the district for four years before losing to Golden in 2018) and Liz Caruso to participate in a live, televised debate on May 31. Caruso accepted but Poliquin declined through his spokesman, Brent Littlefield.

“Mr. Poliquin feels it is important for the voters to have debates between candidates running to win and who have a chance to win based on past campaigns in Maine,” Littlefield wrote in response to the invitation. “Going back many years, both major party and independent candidates who have won office in competitive Maine races have not only raised significant funds but have also built campaign operations to achieve success. We feel it is important for the voters to have a fair comparison of those candidates who would likely be in a position to win the race. That principle especially applies to the November election. By extension it also applies to the Primary.”

Instead, Maine Public will air a live Q&A with Caruso on March 31 at 8 p.m.

AARP poll suggests Mills, Golden leading

The organization AARP released results this week of a poll of more than 1,000 likely voters.

The poll, which polled voters of all ages but oversampled those age 50 or older, showed Mills leading LePage 51 percent to 46 percent. But the two candidates were tied at 48 percent apiece among the 50-plus crowd, which AARP predicts is a disproportionately important demographic in a midterm election.

In the 2nd District race, 50 percent of respondents favored Golden versus 43 percent for Poliquin. Those numbers barely budged among older voters. And the poll suggests that Pingree was leading Thelanader 57 percent to 33 percent in the 1st District.

But more Republican respondents (94 percent) said they were “extremely motivated” to vote in November in the gubernatorial and congressional elections compared to 85 percent for Democratic respondents. Those results once again point to the much-rumored “enthusiasm gap” among Democrats this year.

Maine's Political Pulse was written this week political correspondent Kevin Miller and produced by digital reporter Esta Pratt-Kielley. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.