Gov. Janet Mills hasn’t called for a special session in the wake of the shootings in Lewiston, Maine last week, so it will most likely be January before lawmakers head back to the state capitol with ideas on how to prevent similar acts of mass murder in the future. Still, there’s already plenty of debate taking place across the state, and gun control groups like Everytown are making a concerted effort to make major changes to Maine’s gun laws.
According to the Bangor Daily News, several Democrats are already eyeing up a ban on so-called assault weapons as well as scrapping the state’s “yellow flag” law and replacing it with a scheme that offers fewer due process protections and no mental health component at all. Coincidentally (or not), that’s exactly what Michael Bloomberg’s pet gun control group Everytown is pushing for as well.
“This tragedy was able to turn as deadly as it was because of access to an assault weapon, a weapon invented for the battlefield to wreak as much havoc as possible in a matter of seconds,” said Alisa Conroy Morton, the deputy chapter leader of Moms Demand Action in Maine.
Changes may not come easily. Maine has loose gun laws, a strong hunting culture and a Constitution saying the right to bear arms “shall never be questioned” despite the executive and legislative branches being controlled fully by Democrats since the 2018 election.
This tragedy wouldn’t have taken place at all had the U.S. Army kept the killer confined to a mental hospital instead of releasing him two weeks after he’d been involuntarily committed, or if Maine’s civil commitment law had been utilized by law enforcement or his family after he returned to the state. The danger came from the killer himself, and his murder spree wouldn’t have been stopped by banning guns that are commonly owned for lawful purposes and are rarely used in violent crimes.
Some lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike, seem to get that salient fact and are pushing for mental health reforms instead of anti-2A measures.
Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, who voted against this year’s waiting period and background check bills, wants Maine to work with the federal government to create a public online registry of people prohibited from possessing firearms and a system for guns to be surrendered.
“Those are things we could do without major changes to current law,” Baldacci said.
A conservative lawmaker from Lewiston’s twin city of Auburn is more focused on mental health regulations. Rep. Laurel Libby, R-Auburn, said she submitted Sunday an emergency bill that would repeal requirements for Maine’s inpatient and outpatient mental health care facilities.
Certain health care providers must obtain state and competitor approval under Certificate of Need rules to make major changes, such as building new facilities or offering new services. Libby, a former practicing nurse, noted these fees can run up to $200,000 and that her bill would tackle a root cause of gun violence.
The Legislature twice previously defeated similar bills from Libby. Research has been mixed on how well Certificate of Need laws in three dozen states hold down costs. Groups such as the American Hospital Association argue the rules protect nonprofits from a glut of for-profit providers.
“What are we worried about? We’re going to have too much mental health care in Maine?” Libby said. “There’s no downside.”
Maine doesn’t “suffer” from an abundance of mental health care options at the moment. Instead, for years the state has been losing mental health professionals. The Associated Press reported in 2021 that the number of licensed psychiatrists, or psychiatric physicians, who were practicing in Maine decreased by almost 50% between 2015 and 2020, and in May of 2020 there were only 110 psychiatrists reported to be practicing throughout the entire state.
Dr. Jeff Barkin is one of those psychiatrists, and his encounter with a woman in need of mental health treatment provides a grim example of the long waits and lack of access that many Mainers face when seeking help.
hristina Reed, 30, knows that “acute need” personally. Her primary care physician put her on a waiting list to see a therapist over nine months ago.
She was working a minimum wage job at a day care at the time and couldn’t afford to see a psychiatrist out of her insurance network, so her primary care physician was treating her complex post-traumatic stress disorder as she waited to get off the list.
“I was not in good shape,” Reed said. “It was really hard for me to just understand what was going on with me and just trying to get by, really just the day-by-day to maintain relationships and maintaining a job.”
Reed’s saving grace was the landscape business she started last year: She was gardening at Barkin’s house one day when his wife came out to chat. Reed’s doctor had put her on a new medication and she wasn’t feeling well, so Barkin’s wife asked him to talk with Reed.
“Basically, he connected me with Tri-County services and within three weeks, I had a therapist,” said Reed, who began working as Barkin’s administrative assistant at his Portland office a few weeks ago.
“Without being able to see my therapist, I mean, I most likely wouldn’t have a job. I probably would not still be living in my apartment,” she said. “Honestly, I just, I really don’t know where I would have been if I didn’t meet Jeff.”
Reed said her chance encounter with Barkin “was the best thing that ever happened to me.” She still hasn’t gotten a call back about the waiting list her primary care physician put her on.
Increasing mental health care opportunities wouldn’t just improve the chances of identifying and treating someone thinking about committing a mass shooting, but would also go a long way in reducing the number of drug and alcohol-related deaths and suicides across the state. If lawmakers are interested in saving lives Libby’s legislation would be a good place to start, but if the anti-gunners at Everytown get their way the legislature will avoid addressing the crisis in the state’s mental health system in favor of a sweeping gun ban and an Extreme Risk Protection Order process that ignores the mental health system altogether.