Janet Mills is not yet backing new Democratic responses to Lewiston shooting

By Billy Kobin, Bangor Daily News Staff

AUGUSTA — Gov. Janet Mills declined to take a position Wednesday on a set of new gun-control and mental health proposals from Democratic lawmakers that go farther than her policy response to the Lewiston mass shooting.

The three bills, which have the backing of most legislative Democrats, are highlighted by renewed attempts to require 72-hour waiting periods on gun purchases and ban bump stocks or other rapid-fire devices attached to semi-automatic weapons. 

Those proposals failed to pass the Democratic-controlled Legislature last year and during previous sessions. But Democratic leaders behind the latest measures said the Oct. 25 mass shooting at a Lewiston bowling alley and bar that left 18 dead and 13 injured has forced Mainers to consider ways to prevent more violence in the future. 

Maine stands out as a Democratic-led state with relaxed gun laws. Mills, a Democrat who has been cool to more sweeping gun-control efforts since taking office in 2019, will effectively have the final say. Republicans opposed the new restrictions on Wednesday, meaning legislative leaders would struggle to get the two-thirds majorities needed to override any veto.

The governor “recognizes that there is a strong and diverse set of perspectives on both sides of the aisle about how we can improve public safety in Maine,” Mills spokesperson Ben Goodman said Wednesday after Democrats held a news conference to discuss the bills.

“She welcomes a robust, respectful and collaborative discussion about steps we can take to better protect Maine people, and she believes it is critical we take action,” Goodman said.

House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, called the new measures “a collaboration” rather than “a competition” with the governor.

Mills unveiled her own plan during her State of the State address in January. It would expand background check requirements to advertised gun sales, upgrade the crime of selling a gun to a prohibited person from misdemeanor to a felony and tweak Maine’s “yellow flag” law to expand the situations in which police could take people into protective custody, among other aspects.

The new Democratic measures would institute waiting periods, ban bump stocks and a six-part plan focused on mental health services, a new violence prevention office and statewide alerts for people deemed dangerous along with procedures to better notify the deaf and hard-of-hearing community of active shooters. (Several Lewiston victims were deaf.)

Sen. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, put forward the waiting period measure that includes a long list of Democratic cosponsors, including Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, who has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association. Jackson acknowledged he is a sportsman with past NRA support, noting Maine’s high level of gun ownership and hunting culture.

“But at the same time, there has to be a way for level-headed people to come together and figure out a way that could possibly stop or make it harder for anything like [the Lewiston shooting] to happen again,” Jackson said. 

The lengthier proposal from Talbot Ross has no gun control initiatives and is focused on mental health funding, including $9 million to open crisis receiving centers in six counties and $6 million to reduce waitlists for medication management.

Lastly, Sen. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, amended her existing bill requiring police to destroy any forfeited firearm to also add a ban on the sale, purchase and transfer of bump stocks and other devices that let semi-automatic weapons fire rapidly like machine guns.

Carney said her proposal takes a “functional” approach similar to a pending federal bill from U.S. Sen Angus King, I-Maine, to ban “gas-powered semi-automatic” weapons. But a similar bump stock ban proposal from Rep. Melanie Sachs, D-Freeport, failed to receive support from Jackson and enough Democrats in the Senate last year after passing the House.

Sen. Matt Harrington, R-Sanford, and Rep. Chad Perkins, R-Dover Foxcroft, said they could support the mental health-focused proposals though would like to see more funding. 

Harrington noted bump stock and waiting period bills failed last year, and he said waiting periods would not have prevented Robert Card II, a 40-year-old Army reservist from Bowdoin, from carrying out his rampage after he legally purchased his semi-automatic rifle in July.

Carney’s bill targets the modifications that increase firing rates. The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday over a Trump-era bump stock ban that could shape national policy.

“These bills are here year after year after year,” Harrington said. “They get defeated, and now here we are dealing with them again because we don’t want to let the crisis of Lewiston go to waste.”

The governor’s separate package, which has yet to receive a committee vote, would also create a centralized hub on violence-related data along with the statewide network of crisis receiving centers that treat people in mental health emergencies. Her proposed supplemental budget includes funding to kickstart those initiatives.

Moms Demand Action, which has been among the gun-control groups also calling for a stricter “red flag” law and assault-style weapons ban, noted Maine’s gun mortality rate is relatively low nationally. But Maine volunteer Kathleen McFadden said the Lewiston shooting made clear the state “has lacked many necessary pieces of gun violence prevention legislation” to keep guns from dangerous people.

“We are hopeful that we can build on this progress and that stronger gun violence prevention legislation will no longer be out of reach in Maine,” McFadden said.

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