Lewiston survivors consider upcoming elections

LEWISTON, Maine (AP) — Ben Dyer hasn’t decided how he’ll vote in one of the nation’s most closely watched congressional elections this year, but he knows guns will be on his mind when he casts his ballot. And he’s pretty sure he won’t be the only one.

Dyer, a 47-year-old father of two, was shot five times at Schemengees Bar & Grille in Lewiston last October during the deadliest mass shooting in Maine history. He was rushed to a hospital in a game warden’s pickup truck. He still can’t use his right arm.

In the aftermath of a blood-soaked tragedy in which 18 people were killed and many more were wounded at two separate crime scenes, Dyer has watched his state enact a battery of new gun control laws. It is against that backdrop that he and other voters in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District will consider the political future of three-term Congressman Jared Golden.

Golden, a Democrat with a history of supporting gun rights in ways that bucked his party’s orthodoxy, has shifted his position since the Lewiston shooting. A former Marine who served in two wars overseas, he now supports an assault weapons ban. He’s unopposed in Tuesday’s Democratic primary in Maine, but the two Republicans vying to run against him in November have both vowed to defend 2nd Amendment rights more vigorously than he has.

The congressman’s shifting position worries Dyer, who has voted for him before. A gun owner who describes himself as politically independent, Dyer says stricter gun controls hurt law-abiding gun owners.

“The question is, who are you really helping if you make those changes, because it’s not the constituents,” he said. “That platform, AR, every single one of my friends owns a weapon on that platform. They haven’t been used to hurt anybody.”

That may be true of the guns owned by Dyers’ friends, but the same can’t be said for the assault weapon wielded by Lewiston shooter Robert Card.

Golden’s willingness to rethink his position was encouraging to Tammy Asselin, who survived the shooting at a bowling alley in Lewiston with her daughter Toni. She knows it was hard, but said she was “impressed at (Golden’s) strength and willingness to change his stance so quickly in the face of many resistors.”

Asselin supports an assault weapons ban unequivocally.

“There’s no need for such high-powered weapons to be in the hands of anyone except our military and first responders,” she said. “People claim it’s their right to carry, and I’m not opposed to that right, but there’s absolutely no reason on this Earth they can give that gives a reasonable reason for possessing these high-powered weapons.”

In Golden’s 2nd Congressional District, gun ownership for hunting and sport is commonplace. It’s a vast, mostly wooded swath of Maine that stands apart both culturally and politically from the liberal, beachy 1st District based around Portland. Forestry, papermaking and lobster fishing are signature industries in the 2nd, and the state’s moose hunt is a landmark event there every fall.

Golden said he believes an assault weapons ban would have saved lives in Lewiston, but he also knows his home district is a place where the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution matters to people.

“We cannot ignore the fact that gun laws, whether in Maine or elsewhere, must make room for the Constitution,” Golden said. “The Second Amendment is rooted in self-defense and protection of the family and home.”

Golden’s campaign for another term has larger consequences, with Republicans maintaining just a five-seat margin in the House. He was initially elected in 2018 by ranked-choice voting — a historic first for a member of Congress — and has won by about 6 percentage points in the two campaigns since then.

This campaign promises to be a harder fight, in part because of the volatility of the gun issue and in part because of the popularity of former President Donald Trump in the district, said Mark Brewer, a political scientist with the University of Maine. Trump, who’s on the presidential ballot again this year, has won an electoral vote in the 2nd Congressional District by comfortable margins twice.

“You could see it as a positive that (Golden) is able to change his views in response to a traumatic public event that everyone in his district experienced, everyone in the nation experienced,” Brewer said. “On the other hand, the 2nd Congressional District is highly rural, a lot of gun ownership.”

Republican State Reps. Austin Theriault and Michael Soboleski are set to face off in Tuesday’s GOP primary. Both men have vowed to be stronger 2nd Amendment defenders than Golden. Theriault has sent campaign emails to supporters casting Golden as inconsistent on gun rights, and Soboleski has said Maine lawmakers’ proposals for a “red flag” law to identify people who might be a threat before something tragic happens belong “in a paper shredder.”

But some in the district think Golden’s evolution on gun laws is appropriate. Golden came out publicly in favor of an assault weapons ban not long after the Lewiston rampage. He has since said he “would not have voted for” state-level gun law changes Maine Democrats have enacted, such as expanding background checks and creating penalties for illegal gun sales.

Gun control groups have welcomed Golden’s new stance on assault weapons. The Maine Gun Safety Coalition, which advocates for stricter gun laws, has not yet made an endorsement in Golden’s reelection race, but the group’s executive director, Nacole Palmer, said Golden “represents the courage, thoughtfulness, and leadership we hope to see in other candidates.”

In his hometown of Auburn, just miles from where he was shot on Oct. 25, Dyer isn’t so sure. He said the election would be a tough decision for him.

In the meantime, he’s re-learning to shoot guns with his left hand.

“A sick person did a sick thing that day,” Dyer said. “I think a lot of the gun laws they are trying are a reaction and not proactive to the proper situation.”


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