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Maine lawmakers act to prevent gun violence and promote safe communities

April 19, 2024

Author: Emily Walsh, MPHA Gun Safety Intern, Bates College Class of 2024

When I started my senior year in college last August, I looked forward to a fun, memory filled year with friends. I never imagined that I’d find myself shaking in my dorm room after receiving a text from my best friend that there was an active shooter somewhere in Lewiston. After three days in lockdown, we were told, “The shooter’s been found. You can breathe now.” And yet, I did not feel like I could breathe, because in just a few minutes, 18 people were killed, families were destroyed, and the Lewiston community was left in shock and mourning. It horrified me to know that, on a systematic level, there was little preventing something like this from happening again in Maine. That’s why in January, I turned to activism as a way to process my grief and help raise visibility on policy solutions that can reduce gun violence. 

I’ve learned a lot about public health approaches to improving gun safety in the past eight weeks, including the importance of messaging, providing lawmakers with fact-based, accurate information, and tailoring policy approaches to fit with local communities. The bottomline is that gun violence is a public health issue, and individuals in the field of public health can effectively promote evidence-based policies that can reduce gun violence. The policies under consideration in Maine are geared toward keeping guns out of the wrong hands, while respecting the rights of responsible gun owners. Specifically, Maine Public Health Association, where I interned this semester, supports implementing an Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO) system, 72-hour waiting period for gun purchases, ending the sale of assault weapons, and requiring background checks on all gun sales.

ERPO laws are an example of a policy that could be strengthened in order to create safer Maine communities. ERPO laws, more commonly known as “Red Flag” laws, are associated with lower rates of firearm suicide and have been successfully used to prevent mass shooting threats. Currently, Maine has a “Yellow Flag” law, the only state to have such a law. While the “Yellow Flag” law is a good first step, it presents a variety of hurdles to actually being implemented. A “Red Flag” law allows family members to go directly to the court and ask for a determination from a judge to temporarily remove firearms from someone in crisis (under penalty of perjury, in order to prevent people from manipulating this system). Maine’s current “Yellow Flag” law, on the other hand, requires a family member to contact law enforcement, and for law enforcement to put the potentially dangerous individual into protective custody. Once they are in protective custody, there has to be a mental health evaluation by a mental health professional who gives a recommendation to a judge. The judge can then decide whether to temporarily remove that person’s firearms.  Maine is already under-resourced for mental health workers, and individuals may be hesitant to contact law enforcement, which makes the "Yellow Flag" law less effective. Furthermore, mental health shouldn’t be the benchmark for determining if an individual poses a danger to themselves or others, since many violent events are impulsive acts of anger, not the consequence of underlying mental health issues.

 We should work toward stronger gun violence prevention laws, and ensure that these laws are properly implemented. It is important to recognize that, while much of the spotlight on Maine’s gun safety laws has been in response to the October 25th mass shooting, almost 90% of Maine’s firearm deaths in 2021 were suicides, underscoring the need for an integrated approach to gun violence that involves both comprehensive gun safety policies and investments in Maine’s mental health care system.

As the legislative session wraps up in Augusta, lawmakers have advanced policies that will implement a 72 hr waiting period for gun purchases, expand background checks, end the sale of bump stocks that make firearms more deadly, and invest in Maine’s mental health system. The last few months have shown that when public health professionals make their voices heard in support of gun violence prevention, things change for the better. 

Now that Maine’s leaders are acting to ensure that no family or community ever has to go through what we went through in Lewiston again, I can finally release some of the tension I’ve felt since October, and breathe.