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Bishop of Maine sees hope in Congressman’s gun-law U-turn after Lewiston massacre

01 November 2023


Vigil on Sunday outside the Basilica of St Peter and St Paul in Lewiston, Maine, for the victims of the shootings

Vigil on Sunday outside the Basilica of St Peter and St Paul in Lewiston, Maine, for the victims of the shootings

THE “beautiful” speech given by a politician in Maine in the wake of a mass shooting in the state, seeking forgiveness for having opposed a ban on assault files, is a cause for hope, the Bishop of Maine, the Rt Revd Thomas J. Brown, said this week.

Eighteen people were killed on Wednesday evening of last week, after a gunman opened fire in a bowling alley and bar in Lewiston, the state’s second biggest city. Thirteen people were wounded. An effective lockdown was in place for two days while a manhunt took place before Robert Card, an army reservist, was found dead with a self-inflicted gun wound.

On Tuesday this week, Bishop Brown said that he had first learned of the shootings from messages from fellow bishops offering prayers and checks on his safety.

“What I felt immediately, once I absorbed what was happening, was ‘Of course,’” he said. “Of course, we are now part of a much bigger community who knows the pain of mass gun violence. Not to say that I wasn’t sad or deeply concerned for people, it was a sense of, well, this was going to happen at some point, which is a very sad commentary on the nature of the United States and our political regard for the right to bear arms, which is so enormously high.”

Last Friday, a local Democrat politician, US Representative Jared Golden, a former Marine who lives in Lewiston, spoke of taking responsibility for his “failure” in having opposed a ban on assault rifles, and reversing his stance. “I ask for forgiveness and support as I seek to put an end to these terrible shootings.” He spoke of a “false confidence that our community was above this”.

In a pastoral letter that day, Bishop Brown wrote of finding a “sign of hope” in the “bravery” of Congressman Golden, a member of the congregation of St Paul’s, Brunswick: “I celebrate the courage he has demonstrated by allowing himself to be broken open and changed by the pain of all Mainers and the needs of the community he serves.”

This week, Bishop Brown praised the Congressman’s “beautiful spiritual humility”, and described his words as “God-shaped”. In his letter, Bishop Brown urged readers to take action for “common-sense gun reforms” with the Episcopal Public Policy Network.

The Episcopal Church has policies on gun safety approved by its legislative and governing bodies, and the reforms that it endorses include the requirement of permits to carry concealed weapons and criminal-background checks for every gun purchase, as well as a ban on the sale and manufacture of “military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines”, except for the use of military and law-enforcement agencies.

Reuters reported on Tuesday that, five months before the shooting, Card’s family had contacted the sheriff’s office “to say they were concerned about a decline in his mental health, and that he had access to at least ten guns”. In September, his army unit had requested a “wellness check” after he spoke of hearing voices and threatened to “shoot up” the military facility. He had a history of mental illness, and had been committed to a psychiatric facility during the summer. In Maine, no permit is required to buy or carry a gun.

US reporting has suggested that a ban on assault weapons is unlikely, given a Republican majority in the House of Representatives and a one-seat Democrat majority in the Senate. The new Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mike Johnson (News, 4 November), a Republican, told Fox News after the shooting: “The problem is the human heart, not guns.”

But Bishop Brown remained optimistic, suggesting that the position of Congressman Golden as a former Marine would carry particular weight. “Two things can be true,” he said. “We can stand behind the right to own and possess firearms, and we can stand behind meaningful legislation that says citizens do not need to have particular kinds of weapons or magazines.”

In a report last week, the New York Times referred to FBI crime statistics suggesting that Maine was the safest state in the country. It also has one of the highest percentages of gun ownership.

The latter statistic was linked to hunting — a “really important part of our culture, our economy”, Bishop Brown said. Hunting was also an important part of conservation: “I come from a long line of family who also hunt, and we have a lot of firearms in our house.” The relatively low crime statistics reflected the fact that “we take care of each other,” he said. “That is coming to bear, and is so visible and beautiful right now as we respond to this trauma.”

Maine was a small state of 1.3 million people, with a large elderly population. Lewiston and Auburn, twin towns separated by a river, needed to be considered together, he said.

The diocese of Maine hosted a prayer vigil online on Thursday of last week. Bishop Brown was due to visit Lewiston again this Wednesday evening for a “mini retreat” at Trinity Episcopal Church in the town, which was in lockdown after the shooting.

He observed that most gun-related deaths in the United States took place in individual households, and were often born of domestic violence or self-inflicted: “We have to continually hold up the number of households for whom the threat of gun violence in their home, in their neighbourhood, is very, very high.”

He wrote in his pastoral letter: “We must seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we pursue a future filled with reconciliation and harmony and refuse to let the evil of gun violence extinguish our commitment to the common good.”

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