Guns and energy back in policy spotlight after a tumultuous week in Maine
Two major news developments this week – one tragic, the other more political – overshadowed other events in Maine this week. And both could impact policy debates in Augusta and around the state in the coming months.
Tuesday’s quadruple murder in Bowdoin and the wounding of three Interstate 295 motorists in Yarmouth means that Maine has joined the growing list of locations nationwide that have experienced mass shootings this year. According to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks gun violence, there have been 165 shootings involving four or more victims so far in 2023. That’s more than one per day.
As frequently happens following mass shootings, the incident here sparked talk among some about the need to reexamine and potentially tighten Maine’s gun laws, which are more relaxed than those in many other Northeastern and New England states.
“We invite Mainers to join our efforts to pass common sense gun safety legislation in Maine, so that we can move our state from being ‘F-rated’ on gun safety to one in which we enact laws that protect the lives of our citizens while still honoring Maine’s strong outdoor tradition,” said Lynn Ellis, legislative director for the Maine Gun Safety Coalition.
But unlike in other states that have experienced mass shootings, the calls for greater gun control in Maine have been more measured — at least so far.
Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, has avoided comment as of Thursday, aside from expressing condolences for the victims and their families and friends as well as praising the response of law enforcement. The same goes for the Legislature’s Democratic leaders, Senate President Troy Jackson of Allagash and House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross of Portland, who didn’t release a statement until two days after the shootings.
“As we look for answers, it’s clear that more information will be available in the coming days as law enforcement conducts a thorough investigation,” Talbot Ross and Jackson said in a joint statement. “In the meantime, please join us in keeping the families, friends and loved ones of those who were lost in our hearts.”
Part of the reason, no doubt, is the fact that so few details have been released about how the suspect, 34-year-old Joseph Eaton, got his hands on the guns he reportedly used to kill his parents and two family friends just four days after being released from jail. As a convicted felon, Eaton was legally prohibited from owning or possessing firearms.
Police have so far declined to comment on how Eaton accessed those guns due to the ongoing investigation even as they acknowledged the justifiable interest in those details amid the broader national debate over guns.
“I think those debates should happen around dining room tables and businesses and legislatures around the country and right here in Augusta,” Michael Sauschuck, commissioner of the Maine Department of Public Safety and the former Portland police chief, said during a Wednesday news conference. “That makes perfect sense. And the Department of Public Safety will be involved in some of those conversations.”
Access to guns a key issue
While a federally required background should have prevented Eaton from purchasing a gun from a licensed firearms dealer, there is no such requirement for private gun sales in Maine. Talbot Ross is the lead sponsor of the latest effort to require background checks on private sales. But previous efforts have failed, both in the Legislature and during a high-profile statewide referendum in 2016.
David Trahan, who has been involved in gun and gun safety debates for well over a decade — first as a legislator and now as executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine — says he fully expects such conversations.
“And we’ll get through them,” he said.
Trahan said he wants to take another look at strengthening the laws around prohibiting so-called “straw purchases,” where someone buys a gun for a prohibited person. He also wants to look at school security and make sure Maine is complying with new federal requirements that juvenile records be added to the national background check system. And he sees common ground and room for compromise on those as well as other issues.
“We are always going to have the other debates on the more controversial gun laws,” Trahan said. “But history has shown that they are very divisive. The odds that they will pass both court muster and the Legislature are slim. So what I want to do is make progress and do it together, and then let the chips fall where they may.”
Gun rights advocates are also quick to point out that Maine has among the nation’s lowest rates of gun violence during crimes.
But supporters of tighter gun laws counter that only tells a small part of the gun violence story in Maine. Firearms were used in 17 homicides in Maine in 2021. But they were used in 158 suicides in the state that year. In other words, 89% of the gun-related deaths in Maine in 2021 were suicides.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” Ellis with the Maine Gun Safety Coalition said in a Facebook post after Tuesday’s mass shooting. “As we join our fellow Mainers in shared grief, let us remember those whose lives were lost by taking action to make our state safer.”
Is the corridor fight over?
The other big news with potential policy implications arrived Thursday morning when a jury ruled 9-0 in favor of Central Maine Power and its partners on a $1 billion transmission line corridor through western Maine.
The verdict essentially tossed out the results of the 2021 statewide referendum that blocked the 144-mile project. Instead, the jury agreed with the developers that enough of the New England Clean Energy Connect project had been built by Election Day 2021 to give them the “vested rights” to continue with construction despite the will of the voters.
This is the latest reversal in a regulatory, legal and political battle that has dragged on for years and cost tens of millions of dollars.
The NECEC project would give Hydro-Quebec access to the New England power grid in order to sell renewable energy to Massachusetts as part of that state’s climate goals. But some western Maine residents as well as environmental groups in Maine have fiercely fought the project at every turn, arguing the transmission line would scar the western Maine mountains and not live up to its green billing.
What happens now was unclear on Thursday as all sides digested the meaning of the unanimous jury vote.
NECEC could restart construction once the Maine Department of Environmental Protection gives the green light for work to resume.
Project opponents expressed disappointment but weren’t acknowledging defeat yet. On the legal side, Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court has already said the 2021 referendum was likely unconstitutional and sent the case back down to the Business and Consumer Court to decide the “vested rights” issue — resulting in Thursday’s verdict in favor of NECEC.
But don’t expect the debate over CMP and the corridor to go away.
This fall, voters will cast ballots on two referendum questions that stem from this bigger fight. One of those ballot initiatives seeks to force CMP and Versant to sell their assets to a quasi-governmental nonprofit.
"It is clear that Central Maine Power disregards the wishes of Maine voters; that is why we need Pine Tree Power, so we have a power company that is run by Mainers for Mainers,” Our Power, the group behind the ballot initiative, said in a statement after Thursday’s verdict. “CMP does not listen to Mainers, because they aren’t accountable to Mainers.”
CMP’s parent company, Avangrid, is spending big to defeat the ballot initiative.
According to the Bangor Daily News, political committees funded by Avangrid spent $2.4 million in digital advertising and messaging just in the first three months of the year. That’s on top of the roughly $10 million by the campaign before this year.
Our Power, by comparison, has only reported $655,000 in contributions, according to the BDN.
Split vote on electing attorney general, secretary of state
Last week, we reported that a Republican lawmaker, Rep. John Andrews of Paris, had proposed having Maine’s attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer be elected by voters rather than the Legislature. This would require changing Maine’s Constitution, because that’s where the selection process is spelled out.
Maine is in the distinct minority when it comes to how it selects these three positions. And critics of the current process, such as Andrews, contend it makes them inherently partisan officers.
On Thursday, members of the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee deadlocked in a 5-5 vote on the bill, L.D. 1307, proposing to put the issue to voters in the form of a constitutional amendment. The committee was also split 5-5 on a separate measure, L.D. 696, to have voters elect the state auditor as well.
Three committee members were absent but can still cast votes this week. Whatever the outcome in committee, the bills will go to the full Legislature for consideration where, if recent history is any indication, the Democrats who control both chambers are likely to defeat the measures.
No Pulse podcast or radio version this week
A quick programming note: there will be no Political Pulse podcast or radio version on All Things Considered this week. But we’ll be back on the air and with a new podcast next Friday, so tune in then. And as always, thanks for reading and listening.
Maine's Political Pulse was written this week by State House correspondent Kevin Miller, and produced by digital news reporter Esta Pratt-Kielley. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.