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Some families of victims of the Maine mass shooting have become gun control activists

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Nearly two months after a mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine, families and their community are still looking for answers. The gunman opened fire in a bowling alley and a pool hall, and 18 people were killed. Thirteen were wounded. As Anthony Brooks of member station WBUR reports, some of the victims' relatives now find themselves unexpectedly in the role of gun control activists.

ANTHONY BROOKS, BYLINE: Decorations are up, and holiday music plays in many of the stores along Lisbon Street in downtown Lewiston. There are also signs that read, Lewiston strong, reminders of the deep grief that remains here. Following the worst mass shooting in Maine's history, people like Arthur Bernard are suddenly activists, pushing for restrictions on the kind of weapon the shooter used to kill his son.

ARTHUR BERNARD: There has to be some basic common sense here. And what does it take?

BROOKS: Bernard was playing pool with his son Artie Strout at Schemengees Bar and Grill on the night of the shooting. Arthur headed home early, while his son stayed on at the bar.

BERNARD: I says, all right, kid. I says, I'll talk to you later. He says, I love you. I'll call you later. And I hadn't driven a mile, and I got a call.

BROOKS: Artie Strout, married with five kids, was among the dead. The last picture on Artie's cell phone was of his dad holding a pool cue not long before that night turned so dark. The killer, an Army reservist who took his own life toward the end of a two-day manhunt, had several weapons that he'd purchased legally, including two AR-style semi-automatic rifles.

BERNARD: I understand gun rights, but assault rifles - they're not made for anything but killing.

LEROY WALKER: It's been quite a experience that none of us ever thought we'd ever face in our life.

BROOKS: Leroy Walker is a city councilor in Auburn, just across the Androscoggin River from Lewiston. His son, Joe, was the manager at Schemengees. For hours after the attack, Walker didn't know if his son was dead or alive until state police officers came to his daughter-in-law's house to deliver the news.

WALKER: My son had been shot and killed at the scene. We found out that my son was a hero, that he had picked up a knife somehow and was headed towards the gunman. And the gunman, of course, shot him in the stomach area twice.

BROOKS: Joe Walker left behind a wife and their blended family of two children and three grandchildren. His father, Leroy Walker, says he now favors tougher gun control, though he says he's not sure what should happen to stop the killing.

WALKER: But there needs to be some way to control how these weapons are fired to kill people. One that can fire 30 or 60 or 90 shots off and to be able to kill people in seconds - that needs to change somehow.

BROOKS: It remains to be seen if state lawmakers will change anything on guns when they reconvene next month. On the federal level, Maine Senator Angus King is sponsoring legislation that stops short of a full ban on AR-style semi-automatic weapons, but it would limit the number of rounds of gun's magazine could hold.

ANGUS KING: The key here is that in the midst of a mass shooting, it's when the shooter has to reload that there's an opportunity either for people to escape or to disarm the shooter.

DAVID TRAHAN: We think that initiative really has no chance of going anywhere.

BROOKS: David Trahan is executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, an influential gun rights group. The group helped write Maine's yellow flag law, which is supposed to give police a way to take guns away from people if a doctor deems them dangerous. In the case of the Lewiston shooter, it didn't work, despite multiple warnings that he was suffering a mental health crisis. Family, doctors and police all knew about it, but, Trahan says, nobody heeded the warnings.

TRAHAN: The people that have the responsibility did not initiate the tools that they had to protect the public. For some reason, this guy fell through the cracks.

BROOKS: Trahan says laws should focus on mental health, not guns. But gun control advocates say states with the lowest rates of gun violence do both. They have red flag laws, background checks, bans on semi-automatic rifles and high-capacity magazines. Arthur Bernard says Maine should follow suit, even if it's too late to save his son Artie.

BERNARD: His daughter Brianna turned 14 six days after this happened. You know, her mom has been trying to talk to her about what she wants for Christmas. You know, she keeps telling her mom, you can't give me what I want.

BROOKS: Many Americans share Bernard's grief. Since his son and 17 others were killed in Lewiston, there have been at least five other mass shootings across the country.

For NPR News, I'm Anthony Brooks in Lewiston, Maine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Brooks has more than twenty five years of experience in public radio, working as a producer, editor, reporter, and most recently, as a fill-in host for NPR. For years, Brooks has worked as a Boston-based reporter for NPR, covering regional issues across New England, including politics, criminal justice, and urban affairs. He has also covered higher education for NPR, and during the 2000 presidential election he was one of NPR's lead political reporters, covering the campaign from the early primaries through the Supreme Court's Bush V. Gore ruling. His reports have been heard for many years on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.