It’s become a somber American tradition. A mass shooting ends lives and devastates communities. New laws are proposed, with well-worn debates over guns and mental illness. Sometimes they pass; most times they do not.
This year, following the Lewiston shooting, which killed 18 and injured more than a dozen, it’s Maine’s turn to participate in that grisly pattern. The state’s 2024 legislative session is likely to include multiple efforts to approve new laws aimed at preventing similar tragedies.
But history shows that legislative responses to mass shootings yield mixed results, with some states passing sweeping reforms and others taking little action at all. Already, fierce opposition has materialized in Maine to any proposals that would limit gun access, raising questions about what is politically feasible in the state with New England’s least restrictive firearms laws and a widespread culture of gun ownership.
In the weeks since the mass shooting, Maine legislators have proposed restricting firearms and boosting mental health services, among other measures, according to media reports and Globe interviews. Governor Janet Mills has charged a commission with investigating the tragedy, work that some hope will produce legislative change, too.
Now, in a familiar story, some in Maine are arguing for greater restrictions on guns while others pledge to fight those proposals, saying firearms are not to blame for the tragedy.
“We are all asking ourselves the same question: What can we do, how can we make it better?” House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross said. “I feel the deep responsibility to pursue every available policy recommendation to prevent this type of devastation from happening again.”
While it’s not yet clear which specific proposals will make it to the Legislature for serious debate, powerful Democrats including Talbot Ross and Senate President Troy Jackson have filed bills in response to shootings that are aimed at revisiting existing gun laws, such as Maine’s unique “yellow flag” law, or pursuing other measures such as expanded background checks.
Members of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition said their organization is pushing for a host of new restrictions, including a “red flag” law that would allow for weapons to be temporarily seized from people deemed to pose a risk to themselves or others. Red flag laws allow loved ones or law enforcement to seek weapons restrictions directly from a judge, while Maine’s yellow flag law requires a person to be taken into protective custody first and evaluated by a mental health professional before the court is consulted.
The organization is also advocating for Maine to require background checks on all firearm sales and a 72-hour waiting period on gun purchases, and pushing for a ban on assault-style weapons at the federal and state levels — measures it’s hoping will get more traction this year.
“We’ve always said, ‘Well, that’s a problem elsewhere, it ain’t gonna happen here,’ ” said Edward Walworth, the coalition’s vice chair. “Now that it has, it’s been a large kick in the rear end so that people are going to take it seriously.”
Any gun restrictions, however, are guaranteed to face opposition from organizations including Gun Owners of Maine, said the group’s vice president, Josh Raines, who added that he hopes the state will expand access to mental health services.
Raines emphasized that in the case of the Lewiston shooting, more apparently could have been done with the legal avenues already in place. A month before the shooting, the US Army Reserve warned a Maine sheriff that Robert R. Card II, the gunman, had descended into severe mental illness and that one of his fellow Army reservists was worried Card was “going to snap and commit a mass shooting.” Legal experts, including an architect of the state’s yellow flag law, said local police had enough evidence to begin the process of seizing Card’s firearms before the shootings took place. That indicates a failure of adherence to the law, not a need for new policy, some argue.
“If the existing laws had been followed, this most likely would not have ever happened,” Raines said. “If the agencies at large are not currently following the existing rules and law set, why are we trying to make further laws?”
For her part, Mills has said “action is needed,” but has declined to offer specifics about what legislation she might support.
“What that action will be must be the product of a broad discussion among a diverse group of voices,” she said at a news conference. “The people of Maine deserve a serious and robust conversion about gun violence and public safety at the state and federal levels.”
Pressed about specific proposals, including a red flag law, Mills said, “I’m not taking anything off the table.”
The legislative response to mass shootings has varied widely across the country. While some gun tragedies sparked immediate action, others were met with no policy response. In some states, lawmakers have even expanded gun rights.
“We’ve come a long way in the last decade from thoughts and prayers that weren’t paired with action, but there is still more work to be done,” said Matt McTighe, chief operating officer of the national advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.
McTighe, who lives in York, Maine, and is a volunteer firefighter, added, “Whether it’s in Maine or elsewhere, lawmakers must listen to the overwhelming majority of Americans who support common-sense gun safety laws that keep firearms away from the wrong hands and safeguard our children and families from senseless gun violence.”
In some states, lawmakers have done just that.
After a gunman killed 60 people and injured hundreds more at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada lawmakers embraced tighter gun restrictions. They passed universal background checks, required that guns be stored away from children, enacted a red flag law, and banned bump stocks, an attachment, used in the 2017 shooting, that allows semiautomatic weapons to fire quickly like machine guns.
After 10 people were killed at a grocery store in Buffalo in 2022, New York limited the purchase of body armor, raised the age to purchase semiautomatic rifles to 21, and strengthened existing red flag laws, part of a broad legislative package.
Colorado lawmakers enacted several gun control bills after a 2022 mass shooting at a Colorado Springs LGBTQ+ bar that left five people dead and more than a dozen injured. The measures included raising the age to buy guns to 21, creating a three-day waiting period between purchasing and receiving a gun, and strengthening red flag laws.
In Republican-dominated states, however, the record has been more mixed. Following the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people were killed, Florida’s Legislature passed a red flag law, raised the minimum age to buy a gun to 21, and made it a felony to have bump stocks.
But after some of the deadliest shootings in the nation took place in Texas and Florida, both Republican-led states passed laws allowing gun owners to carry concealed firearms without permits. After a 2022 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 21 dead, the Texas Legislature passed no significant restrictions on firearm access, even as Congress passed the most significant federal bipartisan gun control law in decades.
On Monday, at the first meeting of the new commission Mills charged with investigating the Lewiston shooting, Auburn resident Scott Berry proposed his own version of a red flag law, urging commission members to pursue long-term solutions that could prevent another tragedy.
For Mainers, Berry said, the pain of Lewiston is still fresh and is unlikely to ever fade.
“It may have receded from the national spotlight,” he said, choking up as he spoke, but “it will remain a part of us here in Maine during and not just for a lifetime, but beyond.”
Globe correspondent Daniel Kool contributed to this report.