Gun cultures need gun laws, too

Rep. Jared Golden’s about-face on gun laws is not surprising. He is a Democrat representing Lewiston, Maine, still convulsed by a mass shooting that took 18 lives. Formerly against tightening the laws, Golden now wants a ban on semiautomatic weapons.

One can understand why elected officials in rural areas, even in generally liberal states, would put forth the argument that guns really aren’t a problem. Maine, after all, is a low-crime place. Its murder rate is fourth-lowest in the nation, despite a strong gun culture. Many Mainers rely on firearms to hunt for dinner. Vermont, another New England state with little gun violence and lax guns laws, has the second lowest murder rate in the country.

And what’s true in northern New England is true throughout much of rural America. What fuels the impression that homicides are high in these areas is that the official statistics for gun deaths include suicides, which account for just over half of the deaths by firearms. Wyoming had one of the lowest homicides rates in America but the highest gun suicide rate in 2021, according to the latest numbers.

In opposing sensible gun laws, the National Rifle Association summons visions of peaceful gun-owning communities centered on hunting. Of course, the killing machine used in Lewiston was designed not for hunting deer but for mowing down large numbers of humans in seconds.

The massacre in Maine also underscored the insanity of letting anyone with severe mental illness own any firearm. The Lewiston killer, paranoid and hearing voices, was mentally ill enough to be hospitalized during the summer. And less than two weeks after he legally bought a high-powered rifle, he had run-ins with New York State police and his National Guard superiors.

Maine might have seen a stadium of waving red flags regarding this sick man if it had red flag laws. But it doesn’t. These laws enable the authorities to take away firearms from someone they believe is dangerous. Maine has a weaker yellow flag law. It requires a family member to first contact law enforcement when they fear someone at home is a threat to himself or to others. After that, police would take the disturbed family member into protective custody.

Many New Englanders harbor the delusion that these shootings are mainly a problem to their south and west, in places like Texas, Florida or Colorado. But of course, one of the most horrific school shootings took place in Newtown, a leafy Connecticut town where a mentally ill local kid shot dead 26 at an elementary school. And shocking as that event was, it was not enough to bring about a national ban on assault rifles.

Efforts to merely limit who may buy them are doomed to fail. The 20-year-old Newtown killer simply picked up his mother’s assault weapon plus 10 magazines with 30 rounds each.

Maine’s two senators, Republican Susan Collins and Independent Angus King, won’t go the distance to backing a ban on military-style weapons. They’ve even supported an amendment to a spending bill that would forbid the Department of Veterans Affairs from automatically alerting the federal firearms background check system if a veteran is mentally unable to manage their benefits.

One would like to think that Golden has seen the light and is not proposing tighter gun laws only because his own community is in mass mourning. Whatever the reason, though, he is now in the right place.

To sum up: No one who is not in the military or law enforcement should possess a military-style weapon. No one who has been deemed severely mentally ill should own any firearm. Those reforms shouldn’t be so hard to support, including in gun country.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.