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The uncertain future of Maine’s gun laws

In the aftermath of the devastating Lewiston mass shooting that claimed 18 lives on Oct. 25, 2023, debate concerning the effectiveness of Maine’s gun safety laws has remained at the forefront of public discussion. Gov. Janet Mills has been heavily involved in recent talks on what the state’s legislative response to the tragedy should ultimately look like.

Mills has a mixed history on gun policy reform, as her grade from the National Rifle Association (NRA) has bounced around from an “A” during her time as a state lawmaker in the early 2000s down to an “F” during her gubernatorial campaign in 2018, and back up to a “C” as the 2022 election neared.

After once arguing the need for state legislation to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, Maine’s governor has seemingly shifted away from these positions. Mills has also expressed her opposition to expanding background checks for those seeking to purchase a gun, a measure that proved unsuccessful on the 2016 ballot.

Maine’s current gun laws stem from a “yellow flag” bill that was passed by the legislature and signed into law by Mills in 2019. This law states that an investigation into a firearm owner cannot be instigated by an individual’s concerned family or friends, meaning that this determination can only be made by law enforcement personnel. In addition, it requires a medical professional to perform a mental health evaluation on the individual before a court can be petitioned to confiscate firearms belonging to anyone perceived as a danger to themselves or others.

A “red flag” bill was also up for consideration in 2019 but ultimately lost out to the narrower “yellow flag” proposal. A “red flag” law would enable family or other household members to petition for the removal of firearms from an individual’s possession if they appear to be a threat.

According to News Center Maine, Mills has previously stated that she is not in favor of “red flag” laws because they do not “afford adequate due process protections.” Despite her hesitation to enact stronger gun control laws, Mills has expressed her openness to considering further measures that could aid in preventing another senseless tragedy like the Lewiston shooting. She has even mentioned that she would not take the proposal for a “red flag” bill off the table at this time.

Mills was quoted saying, “There are a lot of ideas out there…I’m willing to listen to all voices.” She plans to continue working with a variety of actors, from those in public health and safety to concerned community members, in order to discuss and consider further action on the matter.

The Maine Legislature previously passed two gun-related bills in 2021 without the Governor’s signature, one that implemented a mandate for the state to track firearm deaths and injuries and another that ensures people who allow gun access to youths without parental permission face repercussions.

Due to the recent events, some public officials serving Maine are taking a new stance in favor of stronger gun laws. U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Lewiston native, is one of them. Golden is now calling for a ban on assault weapons, as well as more restrictions on possessing firearms in general.

When the 131st Maine State Legislature reconvenes for its second session in January, the amount of new bills that can be considered will be limited due to the significant load being carried over from the first. One measure set to be discussed in the spring would require all firearms that have been forfeited to law enforcement to be destroyed.

Another would allow citizens to voluntarily put themselves on a list that prohibits said citizens from purchasing a firearm if they feel that they may one day act to harm themselves or others.

Constituents will be anxious to see how Mills and a majority of state lawmakers will act in terms of strengthening gun control laws in the upcoming session and beyond. The possibility of going as far as passing a “red flag” law could prove a difficult feat in a state where gun rights have long been cherished by many and the use of these weapons for self-defense and recreation purposes are valued aspects of local culture.

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