Late summer 2009, a young man was arrested for pointing a gun at a motorist in Kennebec County. It had all the signs of a road-rage incident. What made a bad situation worse was he pointed the gun at an off-duty police officer.
Police arrested the perpetrator in Sagadahoc County and seized the gun, along with a second gun in his possession. Police records showed arrests for the man dating back three years for drug trafficking and possession. Unfortunately, none of the offenses had prohibited owning or possessing weapons.
Later in the day of the man’s arrest, his wife remembered there was a third gun in the car and found it in a backpack in the trunk. Recognizing his bail conditions prohibited the possession of weapons, and not wanting to have the gun around her, the wife took the gun to a relative, an uncle of her husband’s in Sagadahoc County, for safekeeping.
Within days of the man’s release on bail, he was again arrested, this time for domestic assault on his wife. With this offense, bail conditions required him to live away from his wife. Things seemed fine for several weeks until the man had the electricity discontinued at the apartment he previously shared with his wife and extracted funds from the couple’s joint bank account.
This did not sit well with his wife, and when she discovered where her husband was staying, she called police in late October. Her husband was residing with the uncle who was given the gun for safekeeping, knowing it was a violation of his bail to be present where guns were kept.
Local police followed up on her complaint and told the uncle it was in his best interest for the gun to find a new home. The uncle agreed to relocate the gun promptly. To his credit, he had the gun hidden and locked away. He had actually forgotten the firearm was even there; a couple of months had passed since he took it in.
When the wife learned of the officers’ findings, she apparently was not satisfied and proceeded to tell officers that she recently discovered the uncle was a convicted felon and, by law, was prohibited from owning or possessing a firearm.
Once our office was made aware of the new revelation, I was told to investigate her allegations. Sure enough, the uncle had been convicted of crimes in another state 34 years ago when he was an admittedly wayward youth. Nonetheless, the crimes were felonies. That stain stays for life.
I met with the uncle, and he readily acknowledged being a felon and admitted to handling the weapon. To his credit, he did take steps to remove the weapon from his residence as directed by the officers. The uncle was frank and honest, but unfortunately we could not overlook the offense. He suffered the consequences and was charged with possession of a firearm by a felon.
Soon after the officers advised the kind uncle to get rid of the handgun, he gave the weapon to another relative — the stepfather of the original owner — who lived in the same community. He did this before I ever become involved.
The stepfather had possession of the gun, but somehow his teenage daughter became aware of it. For reasons known only to her, she took the gun from her house and carried it around with her throughout town for a period of time.
The teenager apparently had shown the gun off to enough kids that word got to an adult, who called police on Nov. 15. Police found the young woman in a public place with some friends, told her what they were there for and searched her bag. When they didn’t find the gun, the girl made up a story about why she thought other kids would be saying such things about her.
As it turned out, the gun was in the backpack of a young man sitting nearby. Seeing officers drive by her earlier that day, the girl panicked and assumed they were looking for her. In fear of getting caught, she gave it to the friend, who then carried it around.
It’s worth noting the young man made no mention of the gun to police when they questioned the girl sitting nearby. It’s also worth mentioning that in the ensuing days, it became known that the young girl had posted pictures of herself with the gun on her MySpace page.
After the confrontation with police, the young man returned to his home with the gun. Apparently guilt, fear or a conscience set in, and he grew to have reservations about hiding the gun. After a few days, he gave it to another young man he knew who had some experience with firearms. The second young man stashed the gun in a shed on his property for a couple of days before telling his father.
For the first time in a long time, someone did the right thing. The father of the second boy took the gun to the local law enforcement agency to turn it in.
Both young men were truthful when questioned by police, and eventually the trail led back to the girl. She finally opened up and admitted her role. She was charged accordingly.
The gun was finally in the authorities’ hands by the end of November. At some point in the near future, it would be destroyed — what little metal it contained would help make a fire hydrant or manhole cover.
In a matter of six weeks, the firearm was handled by at least eight people, two of whom were charged with offenses for merely possessing it, not to mention the original owner.
I can think of two saving graces in this story. First and foremost, no one was injured. I’ve heard differing information about whether the gun was ever loaded during its travels.
The second positive note is hopefully a lesson for all who read this story. I have carried a firearm on my side for more than three decades, and I own several others. The safe handling and storage of firearms have been drilled into me throughout my career.
Unfortunately, most gun owners have not sought such education and training, nor is it mandated with gun ownership. I would like to think common sense would be enough, but, sadly, that is not the case. Aside from gun violence, too many people are injured or killed by sheer misconduct, mishandling and negligence. More people are shot with their own guns than by strangers.
There are lessons to be learned from this account. Perhaps if the police had searched the entire car after the initial arrest, they would have found the third handgun, and these events would not have occurred. Or if the police had taken the time to check the history of the uncle they might have discovered his criminal history and ended the story before the teenage girl got her hands on the gun.
We also cannot ignore the young girl’s father, and his poor choice of storage for the weapon. And of course we can’t ignore the actions of the two young men who were accomplices of the teenage girl and hid it for several days.
I recall seeing a bumper sticker that read, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” I’m not projecting a stance on gun control, but it’s my hope that people take notice of the neglect and human error involved in the handling of this particular firearm and take steps to prevent it from happening in their homes.
Any assumptions about weapons should always lean toward the worst-case scenario. Storing guns safely begins with keeping guns and ammo separately. Guns should be under lock and key or at minimum have a trigger lock installed.
The Second Amendment provides the right to own firearms. It does not, however, relieve people of their responsibilities to store and handle guns properly.
Steve Edmondson, who has served 36 years in law enforcement, is the domestic violence investigator for the Sagadahoc County District Attorney’s Office in Bath. He was appointed by Gov. John Baldacci and Gov. Paul LePage to serve on the Maine Commission for Domestic and Sexual Abuse.