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Convicted felons aren't allowed to have guns. In Maine, here's how they're getting them anyway

FILE - Handguns are displayed at a pawn shop Monday, July 18, 2022, in Auburn, Maine. A government study released on Thursday, March 30, 2023, highlights just how violent America's recent past has been by showing a surge in gunfire injuries during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the number of people fatally shooting each other — and themselves -- also increased.
Robert F. Bukaty
FILE - Handguns are displayed at a pawn shop Monday, July 18, 2022, in Auburn, Maine. A government study released on Thursday, March 30, 2023, highlights just how violent America's recent past has been by showing a surge in gunfire injuries during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the number of people fatally shooting each other — and themselves -- also increased.

Joseph Eaton had already led a violent life when he allegedly went on one of Maine’s worst shooting sprees. At 34, he’d cycled in and out of prison for various felony and domestic assaults, against victims that included romantic partners, a child, a fellow inmate and a police officer.

As a convicted felon, Eaton wasn’t allowed to have firearms under state or federal law.

But after his latest prison sentence ended in April, police say that he did get his hands on guns, then use them to kill four people at a home in Bowdoin — his parents and two family friends — and shoot three strangers on Interstate 295 in Yarmouth.

The shootings have drawn renewed attention to a problem that arises with some regularity in Maine: people banned from having guns because of criminal or civil penalties are nevertheless getting them, and in some tragic cases, using them — contributing to a persistent problem of domestic violence killings and inflaming other forms of crime and violence.

Now, as Eaton’s case joins the grim drum beat of mass shootings in the U.S., it’s galvanized efforts to tighten state laws meant to keep guns away from those most likely to use them for harm.

The scale of the problem

A series of high profile assassinations in the late ’60s — of President John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King Jr. — spurred Congress to enactthe nation’s current limits on gun possession.

Convicted felons, drug users and people deemed mentally incompetent were prohibited from possessing guns and ammo. A few decades later, that list was expanded to include fugitives from justice, undocumented immigrants and people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence or subject to protection orders restricting gun access, among others.

Maine has adopted many of the same restrictions into state law, and on the whole, it has been a relatively safe state despite higher gun ownership rates. But elected leaders have generally taken a more hands-off approach to regulating guns, and there’s an increasingly clear pattern of some people getting around the rules that do exist.

Tracking such cases is difficult. Authorities typically only learn about them when a prohibited person shoots someone or has been caught with weapons. And the limited data that is collected isn’t easily accessible to the public, in part because most of Maine’s gun deaths are caused by suicides that don’t make headlines.

Still, some groups have been sounding the alarm about the role of illegal gun possession in Maine’s most violent crimes.

For two decades, a state panel that reviews domestic abuse homicides has warned that guns are commonly used when people — usually men — murder intimate partners or family members, even though some are prohibited from having guns under protection orders or previous convictions.

Similarly, another state panel formed in 2020 to review police shootings says that almost a quarter of the armed confrontations that it’s studied from the last decade were sparked by people not allowed to have firearms.

And court records show that illegal gun possession is often associated with Maine’s drug trade, which in turn fuels addiction, theft, and more violent crimes throughout the country.

How are people getting firearms?

Research and public records offer a limited glimpse into the ways restricted people are getting their guns.

One method is so-called straw purchasing, in which someone else buys the guns for a prohibited person. In a rare example of bipartisan gun control, Congress tightened the penalties for straw purchasing last year in the wake of the Uvalde, Texas shooting.

Johnathan Nathans, an assistant U.S. attorney based in Maine, says that he’s anecdotally seen “a real rise” in straw purchasing in recent years, often connected to drug crime.

“You have people that are vulnerable, that don’t have a criminal history at all, and they are being asked by people, oftentime drug dealers, to go and purchase firearms for them,” Nathans says. “So they’re going in and purchasing one or two or more firearms, and then those firearms are quickly being handed over to a prohibited person.”

Court records offer some examples of this, such as a Massachusetts trafficker forgiving the drug debts of someone who bought seven guns in southern Maine, or a Brewer pawn shop worker falsifying records for 16 straw purchases.

Guns can also be acquired illegally by theft, borrowing or private purchase. That could be from a close acquaintance, the black market, classified ads, or gun shows. Maine does not require background checks for private gun sales, and various proposals to enact them have been rejected by voters and lawmakers over the years.

A 2012 study of 253 people incarcerated for gun crimes found that about 40% were previously prohibited from having them. Those participants only occasionally got their guns from stores or pawn shops, and none reported using gun shows. Most were obtained from friends, family and dealers on the street — and were usually purchased or borrowed instead of stolen.

Friends and family

Indeed, while all those avenues have been pursued in Maine — sometimes in combination — the involvement of friends and family stands out as a pattern.

In one widely covered case from 2020, a Nova Scotia man carried out Canada’s worst mass shooting with multiple guns obtained from friends in Maine, including one who did a straw purchase at a Houlton gun show.

The panel that reviews Maine’s deadly police shootings also points to instances where acquaintances may have enabled restricted people to get their weapons.

In Hiram, a seriously mentally ill man with a felony conviction reportedly received various guns from his father before he died in a prolonged shootout with police in April 2020. A year earlier in Auburn, a convicted felon received help from another man in storing an arsenal of guns and ammo in an apartment building where he ultimately took a woman hostage.

There are other cases where people weren’t explicitly prohibited from having guns, but could have gotten them through family despite previously acting in criminal or threatening ways. A 27-year-old Pittsfield man died in an altercation with police early last year after his parents reported that he’d threatened to kill them and their dog — and yet, he still had access to several of his father’s unsecured guns.

The Office of the Maine Attorney General has declined to identify how Eaton obtained the guns he’s accused of using in April, citing an ongoing investigation. But there may be a family connection there as well.

About a decade earlier, Eaton had proposed moving into his parents’ Florida home as part of his probation for a previous Maine crime, but court documents show that he couldn’t because his father refused to relinquish his own guns, according to the Bangor Daily News.

And when Eaton’s latest prison sentence ended in April, following an assault on a fellow resident of the Maine State Prison in 2021, his parents came up from Florida to see him. All three Eatons were reportedly planning to stay at the home of family friends, Robert and Patricia Eger, in Bowdoin.

According to court records, when a woman stopped by that home on April 18, hoping to pick up a sweatshirt she’d left there a few days earlier, she instead discovered a gory murder scene. There were guns out in the open, she told police, and “bullet holes everywhere.”

Closing the gaps

Experts agree with many of the proposals that gun control advocates are championing at Maine’s State House with renewed energy following the April shootings.

While no single firearm restriction will prevent all forms of gun violence, they say that they can still offer important roadblocks. Some proposed laws would specifically criminalize the provision of guns to prohibited people, including a compromise reportedly in the works to address straw purchases.

Other, more far-reaching proposals would mandate background checks for all sales — including private ones — and a waiting period before buyers can receive guns, although they've met stiff opposition from Republicans and some Democrats in the Legislature.

“I think both of those are important to keep guns out of the hands of prohibited people,” says Margaret Groban, a retired federal prosecutor and University of Maine law school instructor with expertise in gun regulation.

Given that suicide is Maine’s biggest gun problem, Groban says waiting periods would also “allow a cooling-off period, at least 72 hours, so that it may be the compulsive act isn’t completed if they can’t get the gun right away.”

Michael Rocque, a criminologist at Bates College who studies gun violence, says that one of the greatest challenges in keeping guns away from dangerous people is that there are already so many of them in the U.S.

“When you have that many guns, when you have so many more guns per [person], guns are just available,” he says. “People just know where guns are, and they're able to obtain them.”

Rocque advocates laws that encourage people to lock up their firearms, which would functionally reduce the number in circulation. He notes that Maine did recently approve rules to keep loaded firearms away from kids, suggesting there could be an openness to similar measures.

Groups that work to prevent domestic abuse in Maine have also pushed for better enforcement of gun prohibition rules that are already on the books.

Kelly O’Connor, a training director at the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence who leads a state committee focused on the relinquishment of firearms, says she’s anecdotally heard about gaps that could make it easier for individuals subject to civil protection orders to hold onto guns.

For example, some law enforcement agencies may give advance notice they’re serving a relinquishment order — giving the individual time to hide their guns — or transfer guns to acquaintances of the individual rather than seize the guns themselves.

While there may be practical considerations for doing things that way, O’Connor says she has worked with law enforcement groups in recent years to develop guidance on best practices and learn what resources they need to follow them, such as more storage space for relinquished weapons.

Francine Garland Stark, executive director of the Coalition to End Domestic Violence, says there needs to be a cultural shift so that close acquaintances of people who have demonstrated a threat to themselves or others are willing to take away deadly weapons before the justice system has to get involved.

“There seems to be a reluctance on the part of the people in their lives to take seriously the level of threat that that really means, and to do all that needs to be done to make sure they can’t access the weapons that are around,” she says.

And Stark says there may need to be more oversight of incarcerated people’s critical transition out of jail or prison.

“What are all of the restrictions that apply to them, and what should be done in their release to ensure that they don’t walk out this door right into an arsenal?” Stark says. “That’s an important thing to map. There’s only so much you can control, but I think that’s important.”

In Eaton’s case, Knox County District Attorney Natasha Irving says that he couldn’t be placed on probation when his latest prison term ended because of the unique nature of his sentencing. That meant the court couldn’t require that he randomly be searched for firearms upon his release.

But if the justice system can’t require monitoring when a convicted felon who has been the subject of protection orders is leaving incarceration, Stark says, maybe that process should be changed.

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