ORLAND, Maine — To Robert King, who owns about 100 guns and has been a firearms retailer for the past decade, the students who walked out of their schools last week to protest gun violence and easy-to-access assault weapons are sadly misinformed.
“Ninety-eight to 100 percent of them really don’t know what they’re talking about,” said King, who is a cancer survivor, a registered Maine Guide, a proud National Rifle Association member, and co-owner of Ballstown Firearms in Whitefield with his wife, Gail.
“I’m not insinuating that the kids are foolish or stupid, but these kids are not aware of the good that guns do,” said King, 77. “We’ve got to go back to where the problem lies; it’s not with the gun, it’s with the person.”
King, along with about half-dozen other gun sellers from across the state, brought their firearms to show and sell over the weekend at the seventh annual Gun Show, hosted by the Buck’s Mills Rod and Gun Club in the Orland Community Center gymnasium. The building housed the Orland Consolidated School until 2011.
Just days before, students in at least a dozen schools across Maine and thousands more across the country symbolically walked out of their schools on the one-month anniversary of the Parkland, Florida, shooting that killed 17 high school students and staff. In Maine, students said they are all too familiar with feeling afraid of threats at school, and they’ve rebuffed thinking like King’s that their young age precludes them from understanding the nuances of the gun control debate.
“We aren’t ‘too young.’ This isn’t something we’ll ‘understand when we’re older,’” Tessa Meil, a seventh-grader at Camden-Rockport Middle School, said last week.
“This is our reality, even though it shouldn’t be. We aren’t going to let this slide. It’s time to stand up for ourselves and our rights not to be afraid of school shootings,” the 13-year-old said.
Fed up with what many students claim is a new normal, Florida students and others have also implored their local legislators to enact tighter gun restrictions and refuse future funding from the National Rifle Association.
But to King, the students’ efforts are a misfire.
“We don’t want to see this stuff going on,” King said of the Parkland shooting. “But we also don’t want to see foolishness take over.”
“All of our congressmen and women don’t have guns, but they have protection around them,” he said, referencing armed security. “Why don’t we have the same thing for our kids?”
His wife, Gail King, agreed.
“We should give veterans and retired officers a job as school safety officers,” she said.
Kelly Dore, co-owner of Skowhegan-based Freedom Firearms with his wife, Karen Dore — who was dressed in a green wig and leprechaun hat for St. Patrick’s Day — chimed in on the conversation. Karen is also Bob and Gail’s daughter.
“Our gun laws shouldn’t be regulated by a bunch of kids,” Kelly Dore said, adding that one reason schools are often targeted by gunmen is because “they also know they’re a gun-free zone.”
“They have no right walking out. They made matters worse,” Robert King added.
The Dores and Gail King agreed. “Let’s get together in a manner that helps everyone,” he said, such as working to tighten holes in background checks, not banning certain firearms or raising the gun purchase age.
“Rather than try to restrict their access to a gun, figure out what’s wrong with them in the first place,” Gail King said.
Robert King keeps detailed files of every person he sells a firearm to, he said, flipping through his handwritten pages of inventory. When someone applies to buy a firearm at his shop and they are flagged through a background check, it spurs a delay of a few days on the transaction until a more thorough background check is complete. King will sometimes delay the transaction a few days more than what’s required, just to make sure he doesn’t sell a firearm to someone who shouldn’t have one, he said.
In other words, he wants to sell only to people who will respect what they’re buying, he said. And in Maine, most gun owners statistically do respect their firearms. Despite the astronomically high number of guns in the United States, Maine’s rate of death by firearms consistently ranks as one of the lowest in the country. In 2016, fewer than 20 people in Maine were killed by firearms, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. That data do not include suicides, which represent the overwhelming majority of gun fatalities in Maine.
As gun sellers, the Kings said they can anecdotally chart spikes and lulls in their sales in the wake of certain societal events, such as the spike after the election of President Barack Obama — “Every time he opened his mouth, we made a sale,” Gail said — and after national tragedies, such as the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and the 2016 attack on patrons at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
But last year in Maine, the number of background checks for gun sales dropped about 17 percent from the year before — the seventh-fastest rate in the country, according to FBI data. And after the Parkland shooting, King said, his gun sales didn’t spike.
King agrees that all students should feel safe at school, and that only teachers who want to carry concealed firearms in the classroom should do so, and only after extensive training. Mitigating mass shootings doesn’t lie in new restrictive legislation, he said, but in educating and training young people on how to safely behave around and respect the power of guns.
That starts with incorporating NRA gun safety training into the public school curriculum, he said.
As Saturday’s festivities wound down, a young boy who looked to be about 4 years old walked up to the King’s table with his father. He had noticed the candy bowl sitting next to two rows of 30 handguns, and he wanted a piece, the boy’s father said. King, exceedingly friendly, offered the boy two Tootsie Rolls — one for each hand.
After the father and son walked away, King said the key to gun safety is imbuing a respect for firearms at a young age.
“Are we going to cure the whole problem? No. Are there always going to be shootings of this type? I hate to admit it, but there always will be,” he said.
“As long as we’re dealing with people, we can expect the worst and hope for the best, but we can make the odds in our favor if there is training and education.”
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