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Maine's mass shooting has renewed calls for stricter gun laws

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Gun safety activists have not had much luck in the Maine legislature. Lawmakers there have crafted some of the most permissive gun laws in the country. But last year, Maine saw the deadliest mass shooting in the state's history, and advocates for stricter gun laws now say their numbers are growing. Steve Mistler from Maine Public has the story.

STEVE MISTLER, BYLINE: Tragedy recently brought Arthur Bernard to Maine's gun safety movement, yet he already knows his cause might outlast him.

ARTHUR BERNARD: But I know that I would probably spend the rest of my life trying to find the right people who are going to do the right thing.

MISTLER: Bernard's son, Arthur Strout, was one of the 18 people killed in Lewiston when a gunman opened fire at a restaurant and bowling alley in October. Strout's likeness is emblazoned on the sweatshirt his father wore as he spoke to a jam-packed crowd of activists at the Maine statehouse.

BERNARD: This is about finding the right politicians who are willing to do the right thing more than they're afraid of losing their jobs.

MISTLER: In the past, calls to tighten gun laws have been ignored by Maine lawmakers, who have historically given deference to the Second Amendment in a state rich in hunting tradition and gun ownership. And the yawning divide in the gun debate was in full view as Bernard spoke. Gun right activists took positions in the rally so that their message was captured by the cameras. Making good people helpless will not make bad people harmless, one gun rights sign said. Here's Laura Whitcomb, president of Gun Owners of Maine.

LAURA WHITCOMB: All of the things that they're proposing will only take firearms out of the hands of the law-abiding.

MISTLER: The Gun Owners of Maine's policies are not widely embraced by lawmakers, but it was previously successful in its push to make it easier to carry concealed weapons. That change is part of a trend in Maine. Thirty-five years ago, voters removed a phrase from the state constitution to make sure gun ownership is an individual right, not just for the common defense. And just seven years ago, they narrowly defeated a referendum to expand background checks. Traditional gun control issues have sputtered, even though Democrats currently control the statehouse and the governor's office. But House Democratic leader Representative Maureen Terry says the Lewiston massacre has prompted more urgent calls for reform.

MAUREEN TERRY: You know, it's unfortunate that something terrible has had to have happened in order for us to move the needle at all, but I do think that the window is here.

MISTLER: Terry would not get into specifics, but one proposal could center on overhauling Maine's so-called yellow flag law so that it's easier to confiscate a person's guns if a judge finds that there are harm to others or themselves. David Trahan played a key role in writing Maine's existing law. He leads the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, a group that assigns grade ratings to politicians that are highly coveted - or, in some cases, feared - by both parties. Since the Lewiston shooting, Trahan has argued Maine's existing yellow flag law wasn't used to take the gunman's weapons, despite repeated warnings about his mental health.

DAVID TRAHAN: He never should have had a gun to conduct this. That's the place where our system failed, and that's where our organization will put our very significant influence in the coming months.

MISTLER: Meanwhile, Alisa Conroy Morton, a leader for Maine Moms Demand Action, says the recent show of force by activists is meant to reassure old legislative allies and embolden new ones

ALISA CONROY MORTON: So that their legislators know that they have the support and the drive from the community asking for meaningful change.

MISTLER: But in Maine, getting the meaningful change they're looking for will require a big shift in a long-standing political dynamic. For NPR News, I'm Steve Mistler in Augusta, Maine.

(SOUNDBITE OF AKON SONG, "CRACK ROCK") 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.

Journalist Steve Mistler is MPBN's chief political correspondent and statehouse bureau chief, specializing in the coverage of politics and state government.