Living in Maine, not far from where the recent mass shooting occurred – one person, two locations, 18 dead, 13 wounded, hundreds of thousands hunkered for two days – five lessons emerge.
First, bad things happen in good places. Having grown up in Maine, near where these events occurred, the shock for everyone in this community – in this State – was enormous, unfathomable.
In Maine, people grow up slowly, more often stay than move away, trust each other, and help anyone who needs it. That is tradition, the pace of life, peace of heart, and sense of debt owed to others, learned from parents, grandparents, in my case, old WWII vets around town, just how we think.
Norman Rockwell lived in New England, and Maine is more Rockwell than Rockwell. Mid-blizzard, a Mainer will help a stranger change a tire and get out of the ditch. Lobstermen will drop everything for someone in need, chase a distress call in black, churning seas. Mainers care quietly and deeply.
Second, self-reliance is real. Self-reliance is not just an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson or a theme in Robert Frost’s poems. It is a way of life. We do what we have to do, from young to old, with no complaints.
When word of the shooting went out, people called loved ones, assured they did not need immediate help, then pulled a gun from the wall, drawer, safe, or case, cleared the chamber, loaded it, and kept it nearby.
No one wants to confront a madman at night, but being ready keeps you from being a victim. Mainers know firearms are just a useful tool for self-protection and venison in the freezer. No big deal, we got ready.
In political terms, Mainers understand the Second Amendment but seldom talk about it. We can all use a snow shovel, rake, chainsaw, jumper cables, axe, sledgehammer, maul, jack and tire iron, boat motor, propane heater, skis, snowshoes, and – guns. Thousands of Mainers turned to their gun in self-reliance.
Third, mental health is not just a buzzword but a crisis. The idea of a severe, life-threatening mental health crisis at one’s elbow is not what anyone wants to think about. Easier to avoid blowback, deny the obvious, and leave hard choices to others – until the non-decision, the not acting, becomes a decision.
Truth is, with or without guns, people, even in peaceful places, face mental health challenges today – too much stress, division, friction, financial, social, and political pressure, drug abuse, crime, and uncertainty.
From the numbers, you can see that the society’s stress quotient, level, and intensity of cross-currents are rising. The measures of fear, confusion, judgment, alienation, and unease are producing quiet panic.
So, yes, decaying mental health, collectively and in individuals, is a real thing. This leads to another reality: We need to start taking more responsibility for neighbors in distress, acting like adults.
Fourth, hard questions still linger. In this case, hard questions are not yet answered. If an army reservist and gun instructor talks about “hearing voices,” “shooting up” locations, killing people, and is put in a mental health inpatient program, someone should have said: Use a yellow flag, get a warrant, separate him and his guns.
Who should have done that? More than one. Many balls got dropped. Why didn’t fellow army reservists, those smart enough to call NY State police and get him into inpatient at West Point, follow through and assure Maine State Police got his guns? Why didn’t the NY Police alert the Maine Police?
Why didn’t concrete threats by this individual, brought to local and state authorities, not produce more than a one-time drop-in, which found him not at home and concluded he was harmless?
Why didn’t those closest to him, who were apparently aware things were spinning out, not speak up?
Why didn’t those paid to anticipate think more about protecting people than one location?
The Second Amendment is real, as is the Fourth Amendment, which means all citizens – not otherwise presenting a credible threat of imminent, life-threatening criminal behavior – have a right to “keep and bear arms” and enjoy “due process” under the 5th and 14th amendments, but this was not that.
Hard questions lead to soul searching. This event is over, and the issue is not the gun. The issue is a case of extreme mental distress, threatening, reportable, that did not get to the right people or get acted on.
Finally, law enforcement needs consistent support. This event points out the need to support the police at all hours. In 2022, Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) secured $36 million for public safety facilities in Maine, including for Lisbon, where the shooter was found. In March 2023, she and Senator Angus King (I-ME) secured another million dollars for the drug crisis. All that is good.
Maine’s current governor is a mixed bag, a Democrat who supports police but has been unable – perhaps taken by permissive harm reduction and legalization, light on mental health funding and treatment – to roll back Maine’s mental health, drug trafficking, overdose, and abuse crises.
While data does not yet link the Maine shooter to abuse, Maine is in the grips of a mental health and drug crisis, with the 8th highest overdose death rate in the nation – 354 overdose fatalities in 2018, the year Mills was elected, 716 in 2022. That is greater than a 100 percent increase, even with Narcan available.
Maine will recover from this horrific event, but in such times, hard lessons are learned. These five will long linger and can perhaps also guide future thinking. For now, we breathe easier, but only slightly.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.