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Lewiston shooting brings more scrutiny of Maine senators’ positions on guns

Maine Gov. Janet Mills, front left, and Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King attend a vigil for the victims of mass shootings days earlier, at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023, in Lewiston, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
Maine Gov. Janet Mills, front left, and Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King attend a vigil for the victims of mass shootings days earlier, at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023, in Lewiston, Maine.

The deadliest mass shooting in the U.S. this year and the worst in state history has put Maine's two U.S. Senators' positions on guns under the microscope. Republican Sen. Susan Collins and independent Sen. Angus King both oppose an assault weapons ban pending in the Senate, yet both say they favor some type of restriction on high-capacity magazines. And on the same day of the Lewiston shooting, both voted to protect military veterans' access to guns if they're unable to manage their personal finances.

Last week, while the gunman who killed 18 people and wounded 13 others was still at large, Sen. Collins joined Democratic Congressman Jared Golden for a press conference in Lewiston that was ostensibly designed to highlight their efforts to help bring the fugitive to justice.

But when Golden addressed reporters, he delivered an extraordinary statement for a politician in a state where gun rights advocates have long influenced the decisions of elected officials.

"To the people of Lewiston, my constituents throughout the 2nd District, to the families who lost loved ones, and to those who have been harmed, I ask for forgiveness and support as I seek to put an end to these terrible shootings," Golden said

Golden, a conservative Democrat and combat veteran, was apologizing for previously opposing an assault weapons ban. He announced that he's reversing that position and he's since penned a 1,600-word explanation for doing so.

He might not have intended it, but Golden also provided a contrast to Collins, who was subsequently grilled by the British press for holding firm to her opposition to the assault weapons ban currently pending in the Senate.

"I think it is more important that we ban very high capacity magazines," she said. "I think that would have more input and more effectiveness."

While Collins voted for a previous assault weapons ban that expired 19 years ago, she opposed an update that would have widened the old ban from roughly 17 different gun models to more than 150.

She says she did so because the ban was more about a gun's appearance than its functionality.

"And it was based not on lethality, but more on how they looked on cosmetic features and I did not think that was appropriate," Collins said.

Sen. Angus King has offered similar criticism of a Senate proposal that also outlaws magazines that hold more than 10 bullets and requires background checks on the sale and trading of assault-style weapons excluded from the overall ban.

And last week, both senators supported an amendment to a spending bill that critics like Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat, say will allow military veterans to buy guns even if they have been found incompetent to manage their finances.

"This is a death sentence for scores of deeply, mentally ill veterans," Murphy said from the Senate floor last week.

The amendment curbs the ability of the Department of Veterans Affairs to refer veterans' mental health issues to the background check system used by gun dealers.

The amendment was championed by the National Rifle Association, but Murphy described it during last week's Senate debate as a dangerous change that will put mentally ill veterans and others in harm's way.

"These are veterans who have been judged to be mentally incapacitated. And let me put a finer point on it, one third of the veterans that we're talking about … are diagnosed schizophrenics. And this amendment allows for every, single one of them to have their gun rights restored," he said.

Collins said the amendment would have had no impact on the Lewiston shooting because the shooter was an Army reservist, not a veteran receiving VA benefits.

She also said it's unfair that veterans with a fiduciary managing their benefits could lose access to guns while other benefit recipients of programs like Social Security don’t.

"And it's just not right to equate the ability to handle one's finances with mental illness that poses a threat," she said.

King was not made available for an interview, but his written statement largely aligns with Collins' view that the current VA rule denies veterans due process while squeezing off their access to guns.

"The current rule holds that if the VA finds a veteran incapable of managing their finances and needs a fiduciary, this finding results in their name being submitted to the background check database," the statement read. "My initial concern with this approach is that the conclusion may only involve financial capacity and be unrelated to any mental health condition or danger or threat to the veteran or others. As a result, if their name appears in the database, they cannot purchase a firearm, even though the only problem involves financial capacity. Secondly, the finding is made by the VA official rather than a court or other forum involving due process for the veteran."

He wrote, "It would be truly ironic if service to the country ended up diminishing one’s rights rather than enhancing them."

Collins and King also argued that the amendment still allows a judge to determine whether a veteran is mentally fit to own a gun.

"It does not in any way change the existing federal prohibition on firearm possession or ownership by those who have been adjudicated as having a mental illness or posing a threat to themselves or others," Collins said.

Scrutiny of last week's vote highlights how the Lewiston mass shooting has shifted the power balance between gun control and gun rights — at least for now.

King, who is expected to run for reelection next year, is reportedly working on an gun control proposal in response to the killings.

But it's an open question if his bill will upend the well-worn pattern of mass shootings, legislation, then status quo.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.

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