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How NH and Maine lawmakers are responding to recent gun violence in their states

A special commission looking into the mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine, meets, Monday, March 4, 2024.
Susan Sharon
/
Maine Public
A special commission looking into the mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine meets, March 4, 2024.

Last fall in Maine and New Hampshire, two deadly shootings left local communities shaken. In Lewiston, Maine, a gunman killed 18 people and injured 13 others during a rampage. Four weeks later, a man walked into a psychiatric hospital in Concord and opened fire, killing a security guard. A state police officer was on scene and shot the gunman.

Lawmakers in both states vowed to respond to those acts of violence, and that work is happening now in both state capitals. NHPR's Todd Bookman and Maine Public's Steve Mistler joined Morning Edition host Rick Ganley to talk about how things are progressing.

Rick Ganley: In Lewiston last October, a gunman entered a bowling alley and a pub with an assault style rifle. He was a member of the military, with a history of mental illness and threatening behavior. Steve, let's start with the response in Maine in the wake of that tragedy. Democrats there have unveiled a package of gun reforms that they hope to enact. What are the major pieces of legislation that they're hoping to pass?

Steve Mistler: I think the big ones are a three-day waiting period for most firearm sales and a ban on bump stocks, which are devices that can make semi-automatic rifles fire almost as rapidly as a machine gun. What's missing, at least in the view of gun safety advocates, are an assault weapons ban and magazine size limits. But those proposals have never fared very well in the Maine Legislature, even when Democrats are in control – and they have been since 2019.

But gun politics in Maine, just like in New Hampshire, are pretty tricky. We have some of the most permissive gun laws in the country, and that's largely because of the high rate of gun ownership, a rich hunting tradition and low crime rates. And the Lewiston shootings may have changed that dynamic a bit, but I think lawmakers here aren't quite sure by how much. So they've taken a politically cautious approach.

Rick Ganley: What have the scenes been like at the Maine State House during public hearings? A lot of raw emotions, I'm assuming, given the scale of the Lewiston tragedy.

Steve Mistler: Well, there's certainly been a sense of urgency because of what happened in Lewiston, and there have been a lot of raw emotions that have come out during these public hearings. Sometimes that's manifested in grief. Other times, frankly, it's just anger.

This week's hearing on the bump stock ban was a good example. The overwhelming response from gun safety advocates was: Why isn't this an assault weapons ban? They said that over and over, but Democrats have decided to focus on mental health and the accessibility of guns, not the number or type of guns currently available for purchase.

Rick Ganley: Now, Democrats do hold majorities in the Maine Legislature, Steve, though some of those bills may not be straight party-line issues, as you pointed out. But what has Gov. Janet Mills, also a Democrat, had to say about reforms that she's willing to back?

Steve Mistler: The governor has put forward her own proposal, and it's even more cautious than what her counterparts in the Legislature are backing. I think her proposal to expand background checks to advertised gun sales is perhaps the most ambitious aspect of her proposal, but it also creates a network of crisis prevention centers for people experiencing mental health emergencies.

There's also a slight tweak to Maine's Extreme Risk Protection Order law, which is a process to confiscate someone's guns if they're deemed a risk to themselves or others. The governor's proposal doesn't change that process, but it does give police a little more latitude to take someone into protective custody, which is the first step – the first of several steps – in confiscating their weapons.

Rick Ganley: Now, here in New Hampshire, Republicans hold a razor-thin majority in the House and control the Senate and governor's office. So let me bring Todd in here. Todd. What's that that meant for any action on gun control in Concord this session?

Todd Bookman:.Well, as in Maine, Democrats here have rolled out their own package of gun reform efforts. But to date, nothing backed solely by Democrats has passed. A few weeks ago, we saw the Senate vote down a bill that would have created a three-day waiting period for most gun purchases. Recently, the House killed off a measure that would have allowed people to add their own name to this voluntary exclusion list so that they couldn't purchase a gun. This bill was really aimed at reducing suicides, but Republicans cautioned people could be coerced into giving up their 2nd Amendment rights.

We've also had debate here in New Hampshire over the red flag law. That measure was voted down too. As Steve mentioned, Maine has its own version of this law. In New Hampshire the bill would have allowed friends, family or the police to petition a court to take away someone's guns because they pose a risk to themselves or to others. But Republican opponents don't really believe there's proof that these kinds of laws prevent gun violence. And some saw the Lewiston shooting as evidence of that.

Steve Mistler: Yeah. I'll just jump in and add that the red flag that Todd mentioned is also an aspiration for gun safety advocates here in Maine. They've argued that Maine's version is too cumbersome, and that's why it wasn't used to get the weapons of the Lewiston gunman.

Of course, the counterargument is that it should have been used and just wasn't. But it's been used plenty of times since the October shootings – some 200 times, actually. Before Lewiston, it had been used roughly 100 times over the course of three years, and most police departments didn't use it at all. Some cops have complained that it's just too cumbersome, but they're certainly using it now.

Rick Ganley: Then there's another bill here in New Hampshire that does look like it could become law, and that is Bradley's Law. Now, this measure is named after Bradley Haas, the security guard who was killed at New Hampshire Hospital. Todd, what would that bill do? And where does it stand right now?

Todd Bookman: This bill would require the state to share information with the FBI, which runs the background check system when someone purchases certain types of guns at gun shops in the state – the “NICS system” it's sometimes called. Under this bill, when someone is found incompetent to stand trial in the state of New Hampshire, or if they're involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution, that finding would be shared with the FBI so that if that person then attempted to buy a gun, they would get flagged. The New Hampshire Hospital shooter had previously been involuntarily committed to that facility, so he should have been barred from owning a gun.

New Hampshire, though, right now is one of just five states across the country that doesn't share that information with the FBI. So this bill would do that. It would also create an appeal process so that people who have had their gun rights stripped for one of these reasons would be able to reapply. And on timing – a House committee is scheduled to take up a vote on whether to recommend this bill next week. It does have bipartisan sponsors, but there are certainly factions that oppose this legislation. So it will be interesting to see if it has the votes to pass.

Rick Ganley: Now, Steve, the Lewiston gunman was in the midst of his own mental health crisis when he went on a shooting spree. So, what's the talk about increased mental health care spending looked like in Maine?

Steve Mistler: Well, I think there's certainly greater urgency to address mental health care spending. And you've seen that in the governor's proposal, as well as another bill from House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross that effectively plows more money into a similar slate of initiatives, including the network of crisis centers that I mentioned earlier. And a lot of that is because, as you mentioned, the gunman was clearly suffering from a sustained and well-documented mental health breakdown. The problem is that not nearly enough was done about it, and that's been a huge complaint from survivors of the shooting and family members of victims. Some of them have said, “yeah, sure, pass more gun control, but also enforce the laws that we have.”

Rick Ganley: So in watching these debates, have either of you noticed a change in tone this session, an urgency? Todd, does anything feel different at the State House in Concord?

Todd Bookman: As much as I think people were shaken by the hospital shooting, the central debate over gun rights, over gun control, doesn't feel like it's changed much in New Hampshire. Even Bradley's bill, the NICS bill – it may seem like a straightforward proposal, and nearly every other state has adopted it, but it still could face a floor fight. So I think on balance, people recognize these shootings are a tragedy, but I don't see a lot of real momentum here, at least to do anything except continue supporting mental health. That is something that both parties in New Hampshire continue to not only say they back, but they've also allocated real money for.

But I'm curious, maybe Steve wants to jump in on how things have changed in Maine since the Lewiston event?

Steve Mistler: I think it's unclear. I think it's certainly energized the gun safety activists and possibly resulted in the expansion of their coalition. But the big question is whether the overriding sense that the Lewiston shooting could and should have been prevented will undercut whatever momentum there is for new gun control laws. You know, in some ways, the legislation drafted in response to Lewiston is indicative of that dynamic. Bump stock bans, waiting periods, and even the background check expansion proposal would not have prevented that particular mass shooting. But supporters of those initiatives here are trying to make the case that such measures might prevent the next one.

If you need help in a mental health or substance use crisis, you can call or text 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
Journalist Steve Mistler is MPBN's chief political correspondent and statehouse bureau chief, specializing in the coverage of politics and state government.
For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.