June 24, 2018
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To Maine leaders: Ignore politics, focus on safety of children, public

John Clarke Russ | BDN
John Clarke Russ | BDN
Under the careful tutelage of Charlie Rumsey, participant Joelle Milliken of Bangor gets ready to fire a pistol provided at the "Introduction to Shooting Sports" cowboy action pistol and rifle event at the Hampden Rifle & Pistol Club on Aug. 8, 2009.

Maine educators and lawmakers get credit for not taking the bait the National Rifle Association laid out last week with its call to deploy armed security officers in U.S. schools as a way to avert tragedies like the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The measured and thoughtful responses from most Maine officials offer stark and positive contrasts to the NRA’s politicization of the tragedy.

School safety isn’t about “good guys with guns” and “bad guys with guns,” as NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre ludicrously characterized the issue in his Dec. 21 remarks. Framing it as such cruelly and unnecessarily injects the question of firepower into what should be a rational discussion about “making our schools be as safe as possible, while still maintaining a nurturing, welcoming environment conducive to learning,” as School Administrative District 4 Superintendent Paul Stearns said in response to LaPierre’s comments.

Stripping aside the politics, Maine’s leaders must continue to recognize that their first priority is ensuring that children can focus on learning, without having to worry about their safety, in any Maine school.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen set the right tone Dec. 17 with a reasoned call to review emergency preparedness systems in all Maine schools and a compilation of resources to help Maine parents, educators and community members support children effectively in the aftermath of the shooting. The Maine Department of Education’s “ School Safety — Sandy Hook” website provides more than a dozen resources for adults confronted with the heart-wrenching challenge of explaining the tragedy to children, working through their grief and reassuring them as well as possible that their communities are doing everything to keep schools safe.

By addressing many aspects of how children might react to the Newtown tragedy rather than simply on security, Bowen and his staff modeled a sensitive approach with the right mix of empathy and authority.

That same balanced, people-first focus should guide legislators as they embark in 2013 on what Assistant House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, called a “comprehensive review” of how lawmakers can ensure that Maine’s schools are as safe as possible. The review process has yet to be determined, but McCabe envisions it as a nonpolitical way to assemble “a group of experts to discuss the issue constructively and not in a divisive way.”

That group of experts must include teachers, law enforcement officials and mental health professionals who can share realistic perspectives on how government could help them collaborate more effectively to ensure school safety at a time when state and municipal budget constraints limit funding in all three areas.

The review also must address Maine’s gun laws by providing a forum in which gun owners and proponents of stricter firearms regulations can set aside political agendas for the common goal of achieving greater public safety. For too long, the national debate about firearms has consisted of gun rights supporters and gun control advocates speaking among themselves to solidify their political bases or criticizing each other from a distance. With the “comprehensive review” described by McCabe as a framework, Maine can move beyond “good guy-bad guy” stereotypes and discuss gun laws in a way that prioritizes safety over politics.

George Smith, former executive director of the Maine Sportsman’s Alliance and a longtime gun rights advocate, has taken on a leading role in that effort. He’s discussed gun safety with the new Democratic legislative leaders and, in November, accepted an invitation to speak to members of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence during the group’s annual banquet in November.

His words to a room full of longtime political adversaries offer a fitting mission statement for those who recognize the need to put aside ideology in pursuit of a safer world for Maine children: “There is a lot of common ground to plow, if we can set aside our rhetoric and focus on keeping Maine citizens safe and free.”

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