In Maine, which suffered the deadliest mass shooting in its history on October 25, guns are a fact of life. Nearly half of all households own one, mostly for hunting and recreation, sometimes for self-defense. The state’s gun access laws are permissive — there are no background checks on private sales, and residents don’t need a permit or training to carry a concealed gun in public. Its gun homicide rate is so low that it’s been hard to justify the need for tighter regulation. And with no history of public mass shootings to point to, this arrangement seemed to be working.

Until now. With the shooting deaths of 18 people at a bowling alley and a bar, Lewiston, a sleepy college town of 35,000, has entered the lexicon alongside Uvalde, El Paso, and other American cities synonymous with mass gun violence. The hours after the shooting saw businesses close and people barricade themselves inside their homes as authorities searched for the suspect. Now, residents and lawmakers in Maine are grappling with the fact that their corner of the country isn’t immune to such tragedies after all.

“It’s just so surreal to think that it happened in your town,” state Representative Margaret Craven, a Democrat who represents Lewiston, told The Trace as she sheltered in place in her home, roughly a half-mile from the bowling alley where the shooter first opened fire. “I just cannot in my lifetime imagine what families are doing who have lost relatives in such a senseless, stupid, stupid, senseless way. If they have cancer or if they’re in a car crash, you can’t help it. But when something like this happens, my heart is broken.”

Michael Rocque, a sociology professor at Bates College in Lewiston who recently took part in federally funded research into public mass shootings, has been warning about Maine’s vulnerability to mass gun violence for years. “It’s basically just luck that it hasn’t happened before now,” he said.

Rocque, who was raised in the capital city of Augusta, attributed the state’s low rate of shootings to its racially and ethnically homogenous population, the fact that the population skews older, and that people are “simply scattered. We’re not a dense population.”

“But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have gun violence,” he added. “We have a relatively high rate of gun suicide, relative to the country, relative to New England in particular.”

Of the 183 gun deaths that Maine reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year, 159 — or 86 percent — were suicides. The state had the second-lowest rate of gun homicide in the nation. Gun homicide is also rare in Lewiston, which has had an average of nine shootings a year over the past decade, according to Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks media and law enforcement reports of shootings. 

For more than a decade, Craven has been trying to get her colleagues in the state Legislature to pass a bill to require a 72-hour waiting period between when someone purchases a gun and when they can take it home. She first proposed the bill after a friend’s son died by suicide with a firearm he purchased at Walmart and used the same day.

“We knew, his mother knew, that if anybody knew about how much despair he was in, they would have been able to intervene if there was a little time,” Craven said. “It’s just such a waste.”

Guns are easy to get in Maine. It’s one of 27 “permitless carry” states, and with no required background checks on private gun sales, someone could theoretically buy a gun and carry it in public with no vetting and no paperwork. Two of the guns used to kill 22 people in the 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting were purchased in Maine, one of them in a private sale. Maine doesn’t have restrictions on AR-style rifles, like the one apparently used by the Lewiston gunman, nor does it regulate high-capacity magazines.

This sets Maine apart from most of the Northeast, where many gun owners are required to be licensed. Recent gun reform bills have stalled in the Maine Legislature. This past summer, legislation that failed to pass included Craven’s 72-hour waiting period bill, a measure requiring the prompt reporting of lost or stolen firearms, and a ban on devices like bump stocks that allow semiautomatic rifles to fire like machine guns. A universal background check bill was tabled until the next session, which doesn’t start until January.  

Unlike the other two gun-friendly states in the region, Vermont and New Hampshire, Maine is controlled by Democrats, who’ve held the governor’s office and both chambers of the state Legislature for the last five years. Several state Democrats, especially those from seats within Maine’s rural 2nd Congressional District, voted against the gun reform bills.

“People aren’t stupid, but the lobbying is just outrageous,” Craven said. “The NRA and other people do so much lobbying that [lawmakers] think that hunters and people like that are not going to vote for them if they vote for gun safety.”

Even when gun reform has gone before Maine voters, it hasn’t garnered support: A ballot referendum for universal background checks on gun purchasers failed by three percentage points in 2016. “Maine has a pretty proud independent heritage,” Rocque said. “We do not think that we need the government to protect us or tell us what to do — we can protect ourselves.”

But Rocque said the state’s “inconsistent” rules around guns — which require residents to take a safety course and exam to qualify for a hunting license but don’t require anything of concealed handgun carriers — are in dire need of an update. He is optimistic that the Lewiston shooting may move the needle on legislation. With the Democratic trifecta in state government, “we have as good of a chance as any other state to actually make progress,” he said.

Maine Democrats’ conservative streak on guns extends to Washington. U.S. Representative Jared Golden, who represents Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes Lewiston, was the only House Democrat to vote against a 2021 bill expanding background checks to private sales. Golden has also opposed legislation to ban assault weapons and raise the minimum age to buy semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21. He did, however, vote for the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the first gun reform legislation passed in nearly three decades, which instituted enhanced background checks for gun buyers under 21, among other provisions.

During a press conference after the Lewiston shooting, Golden apologized for having voted against gun reform. “Because of a false confidence that our community was above this — that we could be in full control — among many other misjudgments, I have opposed efforts to ban deadly weapons of war, like the assault rifle used to carry out this crime,” Golden said. “The time has now come for me to take responsibility for this failure.”

Dr. Edward Walworth, a retired surgeon and vice chair of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, first heard about the shooting as he drove home through Lisbon, where the suspect’s car was found. “I’ve never seen so many police cars in my life,” he said. He went straight to one of Lewiston’s two hospitals, where he used to work, in case they needed support.

Walworth and the rest of the coalition have called on Maine lawmakers to “stop bowing to the gun lobby and look squarely at the face of what has happened.” He said the coalition may consider pushing for another referendum on universal background checks if the Legislature doesn’t take action. “It got 48 percent of the vote, and that was several years ago,” he said. “I sort of think that the pendulum is swinging.”

The Legislature returns for the second half of its biennial session in January, when the aftermath of the Lewiston shooting is sure to be on lawmakers’ minds. Another Democratic state lawmaker, Representative Vicky Doudera, said it was too early to know whether any of the failed gun reform bills could have helped prevent the shooting.

“We’re still looking for the perpetrator — it’s a very scary time,” said Doudera, who’d just learned that a friend had been wounded in the shooting. “We know that Maine’s gun laws are weak, and my colleagues have been working hard to strengthen them over the past three years.” She pointed to Vermont, where a raft of gun reform bills — including universal background checks — have been enacted in the last five years despite a divided government. “But we have a lot more work to do to make sure Maine’s families are safer from this kind of violence,” she said.

When Maine’s lawmakers return, they will be limited as to what legislation they can consider. Under the state’s rules, lawmakers are not allowed to introduce new bill’s without leadership’s approval, and the deadline for that has already passed. At least one gun reform bill — House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross’s measure to expand background checks — carried over and could still be considered.

Champe Barton contributed reporting to this story.

Clarification: This story was updated to make clear that Maine does not require background checks for private sales. Purchasers at federally licensed gun stores must go through the ordinary federal background check process.