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

As the nation reels from the news of 21 dead in school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, as well as two other fatal shootings in a grocery store in Buffalo, New York and one Church of Californiamany ask: What can be done?

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

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

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

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

Here’s the state’s position on gun ownership, crime, and the law.

Maine has above average firearms…

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

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

…and below average for crimes committed with firearms

According to US Centers for Disease Control data153 people died from firearms 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 them, 132, are suicides, or about 86% of gun-related deaths in the state. With a suicide rate of 9.8 per 100,000, Maine ranks 23rd among the states.

Maine has relatively permissive gun laws…

Maine has some of the most lax gun laws in the Northeast. In 2015, it became one of only three states in the region – along with Vermont and New Hampshire – with a law of “constitutional postponement” allowing many adults to carry concealed firearms without a permit.

While the state leans for the Democrats, its rural voters have blocked at least one significant gun restriction in recent years: a 2016 referendum to demand background checks on private firearms sales. The absence of such a requirement remains controversial, recently subject to scrutiny when guns acquired in northern Maine were used in Canada’s worst mass shootings.

Despite widespread support for gun rights, Maine lawmakers have shown some willingness to keep guns out of the wrong hands. Following 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 a person with mental health issues could hurt themselves or others.

…but many see the state as relatively safe

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

The law saves lives and protects constitutional freedoms, he says, and he thinks it could make a difference in other states as well. Trahan hopes the Maine congressional delegation could use the yellow flag law as a model when debating changes at the federal level.

“Maine is the safest place in the country to live, and that’s no coincidence. We do things here. If they want to listen, maybe they can 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 inadequate.” It involves being diagnosed with a mental illness by a medical professional, which Bickford says may not apply to everyone who threatens or carries out a shooting at a school.

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

Family members are often better equipped to detect short periods of depression that can prompt someone to consider taking tragic action, Bickford said. And hospitals and police departments are often not equipped to undertake what he says is an onerous process under current law.

As for the relative security of the state, Bickford is more cautious.

“We luckily and bravely and the grace of God didn’t have a shooting school in this state. There’s no reason to think that won’t happen here. In fact, there’s every reason to think it will,” he says.

The Gun Owners of Maine group agrees that the state could make 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, the organization’s president, Brett Bulmer, says Maine schools are easy targets because they are gun-free zones.

“People seeking 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 be protecting our children, rather than continuing to pretend that a “no weapons allowed” sign means anything to evil, deranged people.

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

“All the data indicates that when students have a strong relationship in terms of well-being and connection with their school, school is a safer place,” he says. “And I think Maine certainly excels at that.”

The Maine Department of Education established the center two years ago, a recommendation of an independent study that examined the state’s school safety measures in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy.

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

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

“What a sad, sad day when this happens. I feel the same frustrations everyone feels. These are beautiful, young lives that deserved an opportunity to live, and they are now gone. We all want safe communities; we need to understand that.

Members of the Maine Gun Safety Caucus are focusing on those issues, Bickford says, but it’s unclear if anything will change.

“It’s too early to tell,” he said. “But there is obviously the immensely depressing quality of our reaction in this country, as a nation, that it happens again and again. You have a side that cries out for change, but change is not in sight. And you have another side offering thoughts and prayers and taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from the gun lobby. People are getting wise and getting more and more bored.

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