Mainers tell themselves that their state is different, that its laid-back live-and-let-live ethos imparts a measure of protective magic that keeps mass shootings from happening here.
There have been very few in Maine. That’s not to say there is no gun violence. There is. But those incidents tend to be the kind of crimes you can dismiss as criminal-on-criminal violence. Or rationalize away, perhaps callously, as shootings among people who have an already existing animus toward each other.
In telling yourself that, you are subconsciously searching for a reason why it couldn’t have happened to your family. To your loved one.
But on Wednesday, it happened to 18 people in Lewiston, which, despite being Maine’s second largest city, is still a place with a small-town feel. People who were out having fun at a bowling alley or relaxing at a bar, only to find themselves suddenly subject to what we reflexively call unimaginable violence.
“Far too many Americans have now had a family member killed or injured as a result of gun violence,” President Biden said in a statement about the Maine shooting. “That is not normal, and we cannot accept it.”
Actually, it has become sadly normal and too many of us have come to accept it as that. Although mass shootings are a rare occurrence in Maine, this is the eighth mass public shooting in America this year, according to The New York Times’s calculation.
Maine has relatively weak gun laws. For those with a Massachusetts sensibility, it’s always disconcerting to notice that the guy ahead of you in line at the hardware store has a pistol holstered on his hip. Of course, others could be carrying firearms you can’t see; in 2015, then-governor Paul LePage, a National Rifle Association favorite, signed legislation allowing permitless concealed carry.
One question asked at a morning press conference was how a man with a mental health history that apparently included a summer stint in a psychiatric facility after he reportedly threatened to stage a shooting at a Saco National Guard facility could possess such a weapon. Although state officials couldn’t yet answer that query, it’s worth noting that Maine doesn’t have a proper red flag gun-seizure law. Instead, its relatively weak statute requires a gun owner first to have been taken into protective custody and then to have a medical practitioner deem him dangerous before a judge can authorize police to temporarily take his firearms.
Guns and gun safety are issues Maine’s statewide politicians typically tiptoe around. That’s because gun culture is strong in the state’s rural and sprawling Second Congressional District, the largest district east of the Mississippi. Firearms are a regular household accessory there.
To give some idea of the state’s geographical split, in 2016 gun safety proponents brought to the ballot a measure to require background checks on most gun sales, including those at gun shows and between nonfamily members. Polling showed that three-quarters of southern Maine residents supported the measure. But with all 11 counties in the Second Congressional District voting against the question, it failed, 52 percent to 48 percent.
One regular argument against stronger gun laws in Maine has been that they are unnecessary because the state doesn’t have much gun crime. That was true, though it ignored the fact that a significant share of guns used for crimes in other New England states are purchased in the Pine Tree State.
But that has now changed, in a terrible, traumatizing flash. Or rather, a series of terrible muzzle flashes.
This mass shooting will present a huge test for Augusta. Although LePage’s two rage-and-rant-filled terms as governor were a notable exception, Maine has generally enjoyed moderate governance by reasonable people. The prevailing ethic in the capital has been that elected officials should be Mainers first and partisans second, and that reasonable people can come together and get things done for the betterment of the state.
They must bring that sensibility to this horrible event.
It’s too early to say with any policy-specific precision why this happened. It may not be right even to ask how the system failed and how it can be fixed. The truth of the matter is that there really isn’t such a system.
But here’s what we can say with confidence. States with strong gun laws see far less gun violence. Maine must now realize that it isn’t special, that it isn’t immune, that it’s not a state of grace.
That means an honest, clear-eyed effort must be made to keep something like this from happening again.