Among all the anguished comments on the tragic killing of a mother and her children in Dexter in June, a key factor has gone almost completely unmentioned: the killer’s access to guns, even while he awaited a trial on charges of criminal threatening. One of the few mentions of guns was a reader’s questionable assertion that the victim would have been safe if she had kept a gun in the house.
It was a gun, a 12-gauge shotgun, that Steven Lake used on June 13 to kill his wife, their two children and himself. He had entered the house armed also with a .22-caliber handgun, extra ammunition and a knife. Almost exactly a year earlier, on June 14, 2010, he had gathered his family together in the couple’s bedroom, took a pistol from a holster hanging on a bedpost, and threatened to kill them all.
Despite a protection-from-abuse order, bail conditions that he have no further contact with his wife and that he possess no weapons, and a later charge of violation of the protection order, he somehow obtained his shotgun and killed them all.
Could police have seized all his weapons? Apparently not under existing laws. The Legislature considered and rejected a proposed law, LD 386, which would have authorized law enforcement officers to seize firearms from a person upon arrest for crimes of domestic violence including criminal threatening and terrorizing. Such a law would have matched the circumstances of this case. Had it been in effect, it might conceivably have averted the Dexter tragedy.
Not necessarily, says R. Christopher Almy, the Piscataquis County district attorney. He points out that Mr. Lake could have hidden his weapons in his car or elsewhere. More fundamentally, he notes that the Legislature and its laws can’t solve everything. There laws against murder and shoplifting, but murders and shoplifting go on, all the same.
There were 5,117 reported domestic violence assaults in Maine in 2010, despite laws and regulations and campaigns to prevent them. Mr. Almy also raises the question of how could authorities possibly manage the seizure of 5,117 collections of firearms.
Nonetheless, LD 386, “An Act to Implement the Recommendations of the Working Group Concerning Domestic Violence and Firearms,” might help in such cases. But it failed, largely because the gun lobby opposed it. That lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, has persuaded many lawmakers and much of the Maine public that any restriction on the possession of firearms would be a start down the slippery slope toward general restriction on possession and use of guns.
What’s needed is a mechanism to keep firearms out of the hands of known violence-prone domestic abusers while respecting the constitutional rights of all gun owners.
Surely, Maine’s lawmakers can find a way to distinguish the role of firearms in the particular threat of widespread domestic violence from the general gun rights as pronounced by the Supreme Court.
The gun lobby likes to say that guns don’t kill people; people do. But this year in Dexter and in every year anywhere, abusers often find a firearm the weapon of choice. We must do more to keep guns out of their hands.