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Motivated by Lewiston massacre, Maine gun safety advocates make their presence felt at State House

Arthur Barnard, of Topsham, speaks during the Jan. 3 gun safety rally at the Maine State House. Barnard's son, Arthur Strout, was one of 18 people killed in the Lewiston shootings last October.
Esta Pratt-Kielley
/
Maine Public
Arthur Barnard, of Topsham, speaks during the Jan. 3 gun safety rally at the Maine State House. Barnard's son, Arthur Strout, was one of 18 people killed in the Lewiston shootings last October.

Gun safety activists have long been thwarted in the Maine Legislature, which over the years has crafted some of the most permissive gun laws in the country. But this year, after the deadliest mass shooting in state history, advocates for stricter gun laws say they're growing their ranks and they turned out hundreds of supporters at the State House on Wednesday.

Leading the charge was Arthur Barnard, a Topsham man.

Many family members of mass shooting victims carry their sorrow silently and out of public view. Barnard does not.

His grief is raw, sometimes showing up as tears or long pauses as he talks about the loss of his son, Arthur Strout, one of the 18 people killed in the Lewiston shootings in October.

And as Barnard spoke to a jam-packed crowd of gun safety activists in State House Hall of Flags, it was clear that he's channeling his loss into purpose.

"I know that I will spend the rest of my life trying to get the right people — trying to find the right people — who are going to do the right thing," he said.

Gun safety advocates line up outside the State House in Augusta, Maine, on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2023.
Esta Pratt-Kielley
/
Maine Public
Gun safety activists line up outside the State House in Augusta, Maine, on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2023.

When Barnard talks about the right people, he's referring to Maine lawmakers, a contingent that has historically given great deference to gun rights groups in a state rich in hunting tradition and gun ownership.

For that reason State House demonstrations by gun safety groups are typically low-key, their numbers few.

But as Barnard spoke Wednesday, he did so to a crowd of hundreds. And while it was largely hushed as he spoke, it erupted in applause when he expressed one of their core frustrations.

"This is not about taking guns, OK? This is about doing the right thing and finding the right politicians who are willing to do the right thing more than they're afraid of losing their jobs," he said.

Gun safety advocates line the stairway in the Hall of Flags at the State House in Augusta, Maine, on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2023.
Esta Pratt-Kielley
/
Maine Public
Gun safety advocates line the stairway in the Hall of Flags at the State House in Augusta, Maine, on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2023.

Barnard didn't specify what he wants lawmakers to pass, just something that will bridge an increasingly — some say hopelessly — yawning divide between gun rights and gun control groups.

The divide was illustrated in the Hall of Flags as gun rights advocates took positions among the gun control activists to make sure that their message was captured in photos and TV shots.

"Making good people helpless will not make bad people harmless," one gun rights sign said.

"All of the things that they're proposing will only take firearms out of the hands of the law abiding," says Laura Whitcomb, president of Gun Owners of Maine.

Whitcomb says mass shooting prevention begins by addressing mental health.

"Because as we know all of these mass shooting perpetrators have mental health issues. Clearly, you don't go around shooting people if you don't," she says.

In Whitcomb's view, lawmakers should crackdown on gun-free zones, places that prohibit carrying guns.

She calls them "victim zones," places like schools, or the billiards hall and bowling alley where the Lewiston shootings took place.

"The vast majority of mass shootings occur in gun-free zones. And so, when there is no good guy with a gun to stop the bad guy with the gun then it (the mass shooting) is prolonged, the outcome is worse," she says.

Arthur Barnard, of Topsham, speaks during the Jan. 3 gun safety rally at the Maine State House. Barnard's sweatshirt bears a portrait of his son Arthur Strout, who was one of 18 people killed in the Lewiston shootings last October.
Esta Pratt-Kielley
/
Maine Public
Arthur Barnard, of Topsham, speaks during the Jan. 3 gun safety rally at the Maine State House. Barnard's sweatshirt bears a portrait of his son Arthur Strout, who was one of 18 people killed in the Lewiston shootings last October.

While legislation will be considered this session that would hold property owners liable if people are hurt at a place that prohibits firearms, it stands little chance of passage in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Nevertheless, the proposal is one of many that highlight how differently some gun owners view the problem of gun violence; it's not too many guns, it's too many places where guns aren't allowed.

Alisa Conroy Morton, a leader for Maine Moms Demand Action, is well aware of the political dynamic, to say nothing of lawmakers' historical reluctance to take their side in the gun debate: Stronger background checks, an assault weapons ban and a red flag law to more easily confiscate guns from people who are mentally ill.

But growing interest from new activists is making Morton more hopeful.

"And not just the numbers of people who are coming to the chapter of Maine Moms Demand Action, but the types of people who are coming. And the diversity of who's now joining this movement are those who tended to be on the fringes or were not necessarily having their voices heard," Morton said.

Morton also says Wednesday's showing at the State House should reassure old legislative allies, while hopefully winning new ones.

A young child holds a sign reading "Enough is Enough" at the State House in Augusta, Maine on Jan. 3, 2023.
Esta Pratt-Kielley
/
Maine Public
A young child holds a sign reading "Enough is Enough" at the State House in Augusta, Maine on Jan. 3, 2023.

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

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