Grieving and Angry, Maine Residents Demand Change after Mass Killing

Sofia Aldinio for The Washington Post
A makeshift memorial for victims outside of Schemengees Bar & Grille, one of the shooting sites.

LEWISTON, Maine – Slowly, Jenna Guiggey’s regulars were starting to return, ordering cold brews and pumpkin spice lattes. Two settled into her wooden chairs, a scene approaching normalcy.

Guiggey, the 32-year-old owner of Blue Jay Coffee, wondered: Did they need help?

It had been five days since police found the body of the gunman who had staged the deadliest mass killing in Maine’s history, and Guiggey described the mood as “a fog of grief.” Long before the massacre, she had struggled to find a therapist accepting new clients.

Had the shooter hit a similar wall?

“I can’t even get my doctor on the phone,” she said, “but it’s a little too easy to buy a gun.”

In the week since Robert Card stormed a bar and a bowling alley here, killing 18 people and wounding 13 others, residents in Lewiston and nearby towns that locked down during the nearly 48-hour manhunt have emerged with questions, saying they want more than “thoughts and prayers.”

They’re calling for accessible mental health care, restrictions on firearms and more aggressive law enforcement action when a person with access to weapons is exhibiting psychosis. They’re angry that this city of 38,000 has become yet another place devastated by bullets in a country suffering an unrelenting wave of killings. They want to see change – real change, and quickly.

Some are touched that President Biden arrived Friday to meet with Lewiston’s first responders and the victims’ families, but others see the visit as an empty gesture and say leaders should be doing more to end the uniquely American carnage. Some tuned into a news conference this week where Gov. Janet Mills, a second-term Democrat, declined to offer any policy prescriptions but called for “a broad discussion among a diverse group of voices.” It was time, Mills said, “to ask ourselves what changes are needed to protect the safety of Maine people.”

Mainers in Lewiston and in Card’s tiny hometown, Bowdoin, were well ahead of her.

“Sometimes I want some extra support in this cold, dark state,” Guiggey said as the temperature plunged toward freezing, “and every therapist online says, ‘Not accepting new patients.'”

That night, the sun would set at 5:30 p.m.

“We need to be more proactive about getting people the help they need,” agreed her roommate, 32-year-old Travis Lindsey, who had dropped by for his usual maple sea salt latte.

A photographer who nannies 6-month-old twin girls, Lindsey was glad that the conservative House Democrat representing the area had reversed his opposition to banning “assault rifles,” offering an emotional public apology after the shooting. Now Rep. Jared Golden, a Marine veteran, told reporters he wanted to “just get rid of the things.”

Finding solutions that work for everyone would be complicated, Guiggey thought.

Hunting is huge here, and guns are beloved. Growing up, her father shot bucks for stew and gave the leftovers to families who couldn’t afford to eat well.

She said she didn’t know anyone who hunted with the sort of rifle Card was seen carrying outside one of the shooting sites, though. The force of those bullets could explode the meat, she said, and everyone who tries to buy one should face rigorous background checks. Especially when the demand for counseling is so high that even motivated patients face cumbersome delays.

So Guiggey tried to create her own haven, hosting events to foster togetherness, including a celebration of life for a recently departed hound named Sweetpea.

The FBI agents handing out Hershey’s bars and pamphlets on “coping with grief” at a Halloween event in town had been a nice start.

“We need more,” she said, “and it should be free.”

What could have stopped his neighbor from committing this massacre? Douglas Rollins, 76, considered the possibilities as he cleared his gutters for winter, thinking of the man he’d known as “just a kid growing up in the country.”

From his yard in rural Bowdoin – a 25-minute drive southeast from Lewiston – he could see the dairy farm where, as a boy, Card stayed busy with chores before moving into his own trailer down the narrow country road.

Rollins used to teach high-schoolers with the gunman’s grandmother, tackle carpentry projects with his father and employ his sister as a babysitter. They were all, he said, “the type of people who’d give the shirts off their backs.”

He didn’t know that Card was telling members of his Army Reserve unit that he had been hearing voices. He hadn’t heard that, months ago, Card threatened to “shoot up” his drill center, among other places – and that authorities knew about it.

He was more concerned about the rifle Card had possessed.

“No one goes hunting with that,” said Rollins, an Army veteran who allows people to stalk deer on his 40 acres. “Those are designed to kill people.”

He blamed the National Rifle Association for marketing AR-style guns to civilians with campaigns that glamorize weapons meant for war.

If it were up to him, on top of beefing up background checks, he would have put a stop to Congress moving in 2005 to shield firearm manufacturers from most lawsuits related to gun crimes. The issue could soon land before the Supreme Court as Democratic-led states push to hold gunmakers liable for unleashing a “public nuisance.”

“Allow families to sue them,” Rollins said, so that companies must shoulder some of the pain.

Jenny Coffey, 44, mulled America’s priorities as she unlocked the marijuana store she manages in downtown Lewiston.

Her daughter, a psychiatric nurse in New Hampshire, works late shifts helping people who have sometimes lost touch with reality and tried to attack her. She earns barely enough to pay the rent and waits tables on the side.

“She makes $2 less an hour than I do, and I sell weed,” said Coffey, the manager of 207THC, gesturing toward a glass display of pipes. “It’s a lot to put up with to be broke.”

If she had a magic wand, she would give the country’s mental health workers a substantial raise – just as France and other nations did during the height of the pandemic. Why couldn’t the United States do something similar to boost the morale in psych wards?

She couldn’t believe that the gunman had been released after a two-week stay this summer in a mental health facility.

“My daughter told me that’s not enough time,” she said. “You don’t even know if the meds are working yet.”

Outside her shop, a campaign sign for mayoral candidate Luke Jensen read: “Demand change.”

The 32-year-old substitute teacher, a fifth-generation resident, had meant Lewiston’s lackluster tax base, among other issues. Now he struggled to find the right words ahead of the election Tuesday.

He’d started to write a video script – typing and deleting, typing and deleting – and landed on a message about the city’s resilience.

Jensen thought Maine needed an airtight red-flag law, which would allow a judge to order the confiscation of guns from those deemed a threat to themselves or others. (“If you’re an American with a healthy mind,” he clarified, “I don’t care if you own a bazooka or a tank.”) If elected, however, he said he would adopt a neutral position and listen to the range of ideas bubbling up in what he called “a microcosm of America.”

Look at Lewiston’s history of tensions between French Canadian and Irish settlers, its shuttered textile mills and jobs lost to overseas factories, its wave of immigrants over the last half-century from Somalia and other African nations.

“If we can figure out how to make the changes we need here,” he said, “then maybe we can fix America.”

Sipping coffee at his regular diner, Denis Theriault said it loud enough for everyone to hear.

“There are bad eggs in town,” the retired real estate investor, 69, told another patron, “and what are you going to do?”

He didn’t blame the easy availability of guns. Why hadn’t the authorities tracked down Card long before the shooting?

This spring, the gunman had threatened to “shoot up” a variety of locations, according to documents released this week by the sheriff’s office. But deputies said they couldn’t find him, and Card stayed armed until after the massacre, when he fatally shot himself.

“One man was able to shut this state down,” Theriault said.

More proactive policing could help prevent another slaughter, he thought, along with tighter security at the nation’s boundary with Mexico. (White American men carry out most mass shootings in the United States, according to data collected by the Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University and analyzed by the Post.)

His logic: “One man could do all that, and look at how many people are crossing the border unvetted,” he said, referring to the rise of migrants this year entering the United States without a visa.

Then talk at Simones’ Hot Dog Stand shifted to the Battle of the Bridge, the annual football showdown between Lewiston High School’s Blue Devils and neighboring Auburn’s Red Eddies.

Sofia Aldinio for The Washington Post
High school football players from Lewiston and Auburn honor the families of shooting victims before a football game Wednesday.

The Lewiston campus had transformed one week earlier into a command center as authorities sought Card. By Wednesday evening, dozens of emergency vehicles parked there for another reason.

“Let’s hear it for our very own heroes in blue, the Lewiston police!” the announcer boomed.

Tara Bryant stood bundled up in her blue L.L. Bean jacket below an American flag at half-staff, waiting for friends near the concession stand selling $5 cheeseburgers. Therapy dogs sniffed the grass. Sound technicians were setting up a microphone for the Grammy-winning singer James Taylor, who had flown in to perform the national anthem.

Someone had taped hearts on the field’s fence featuring the names of the dead.

It was a moving scene, the 40-year-old kindergarten teacher thought, but soon, once the funerals were over, she hoped for more action, starting with comprehensive mental health support.

She thought of her husband’s friend, a veteran who had served in Iraq. The friend wasn’t always doing well, so her husband checked in as often as he could.

“But we are just his friends,” she said. “We aren’t professionals.”

She knew others in the same position, people whose loved ones lacked access to real assistance. Were they supposed to ask: Do you have a gun? And if so, were they supposed to try to take that gun away?

“I wish we had some kind of playbook,” she said.

Sofia Aldinio for The Washington Post
The community gathers to honor victims and watch the annual Battle of the Bridge game at Lewiston High on Wednesday.