Nov 2, 2023

The mass shooting in Maine.

The mass shooting in Maine.
Photo by Heather Mount / Unsplash

Plus, a reader question about Matt Gaetz.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 14 minutes.

A mass shooting in Maine has led to more debate about gun control. Plus, a reader quesiton about Matt Gaetz.

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I'll be writing a members-only piece on the options Israel has in front of it, none of which are particularly good. I'll also be responding to one of the most common questions I've been getting since our coverage of Hamas’ attacks in Israel began: Where can I learn more? What are good resources? What are good books? I'll be sharing a list of reliable resources for readers to consult, including expert historians and their books, videos, podcasts, and articles.

Quick hits.

  1. Egypt allowed hundreds of foreign passport holders and injured Palestinians to cross its border from Gaza yesterday, the first opportunity for civilians to leave the strip since Israel's airstrikes began three weeks ago. An estimated 600 Americans remain in Gaza. (The updates)
  2. A measure to expel Rep. George Santos (R-NY) from Congress was soundly rejected last night by a 179-213 vote, with dozens of Democrats joining most Republicans in opposition. An ethics report on Santos’s actions is due November 17. (The vote)
  3. An estimated 4,000 teachers and school employees went on strike in Portland, Oregon, yesterday, canceling school for 45,000 students. The staff is protesting oversized classes, low pay, and a lack of resources. (The strike)
  4. Donald Trump Jr., the son of the former president, testified in his father's civil fraud trial on Wednesday that he had no direct involvement in financial statements his family's business gave to banks and insurers. (The testimony)
  5. The Federal Reserve left interest rates unchanged yesterday, but remained open to another hike in December (The rates). Separately, Toyota raised the wages of its nonunionized factory workers after strikes at GM, Ford, and Stellantis led to pay increases. (The raise)

Today's topic.

The mass shooting in Maine. On Wednesday, October 25, an Army reservist killed 18 people and injured 13 others at a bowling alley and bar in Lewiston, Maine. After a two-day manhunt, the shooter was found dead with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His body was found at the recycling facility where he worked.

Editor's note: Tangle does not name mass shooters because of the well-documented contagion effect. We also try to share limited information about the shooter and their alleged motives where possible, and typically wait several days after a mass shooting to report on it, as the information in the first hours and days after these events is typically unreliable.

The mass shooting was the 36th mass killing in the United States this year, according to a database maintained by the Associated Press and USA Today which defines mass killings as incidents where four or more people, excluding the offender, were killed within a 24-hour time frame. 

Three months before the shooting, members of the gunman's Army Reserve unit reported him for erratic behavior and the Army determined that he shouldn't have a weapon or handle ammunition. In July, the suspect underwent a medical evaluation because of his behavior while training at the U.S. Military Academy. In September, his unit requested a health and welfare check on him. Before the shooting, he had made threats against the base and other soldiers and his family members reported that he had recently been hearing voices, though it remains unclear why he targeted the bowling alley.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives (ATF) told CBS News that the gunman had recently been denied a silencer for his response to an ATF form. According to law enforcement, all of the suspect's guns had been purchased legally. ATF special agent Jim Ferguson said "there were a lot more than three" weapons recovered, though he did not specify their makes or models.

Maine has a so-called "yellow flag" law, which allows police to ask a judge to force someone to relinquish their guns and block them from buying firearms if the court deems them a threat to themselves or others. However, the law requires a medical professional to determine that the person poses a risk after they have been taken into protective custody by police.

"If in fact the suspect was hospitalized for two weeks for mental illness, that should have triggered the yellow flag law and he should have been separated from his weapons," Maine Sen. Susan Collins (R) said.

New House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) pushed back against calls to swiftly pass new gun laws following the shooting.

“At the end of the day, the problem is the human heart. It’s not guns. It’s not the weapons,” Johnson said. “At the end of the day, we have to protect the right of the citizens to protect themselves, and that’s the Second Amendment. And that’s why our party stands so strongly for that... This is not the time to be talking about legislation.”

President Biden's deputy press secretary Andrew Bates said the administration rejects "the offensive accusation that gun crime is prevalent in the United States because of Americans’ ‘hearts.’"

Today, we're going to share some reactions to the shooting from the left and right, then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • The left is despondent about the shooting, calling it a uniquely American tragedy. 
  • Some say Congress should pass more stringent gun control laws that would outlaw weapons like the one used in the shooting.
  • Others reflect on the experience of living through this latest mass death event in the U.S. 

The Bangor Daily News editorial board said “Congress needs to save Americans from gun violence.”

“No legislation is going to end all gun violence in Maine or around the country, certainly not with millions of guns already in circulation, and with the fundamental and undeniably important right for individuals to bear arms,” the board wrote. “All rights are limited and inevitably must be balanced against others, however. It is possible and necessary to better balance gun rights with the right for everyone to not be brutally murdered while simply going about their lives.”

“We ourselves have been hesitant at times to lean strongly into some potential gun reforms, seeking to find the constructive middle path amid entrenched sides of the debate. This is not the time for moderation, however,” the board said. “It is time to do the obvious things that can save lives and preserve Second Amendment rights at the same time. It is time to ban high-capacity magazines of more than 10 rounds.”

The Los Angeles Times editorial board said the shooter fit a profile: “He is American and he has a gun.”

“It’s human nature at a time like this to pick through bits of incomplete information in search of patterns that characterize mass shooters to understand what kind of person commits such horrendous crimes and why,” the board wrote. “But there is no consistent profile. Perpetrators are Americans of all stripes, committing a peculiarly American crime. The one thing they have in common is guns, which are more plentiful than ever in the United States. The COVID-19 pandemic and unrest in the wake of George Floyd‘s murder in 2020 helped spur a huge spike in gun sales.

“At the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court has been rolling back weapons restrictions, in effect turning the 2nd Amendment into a national suicide pact,” the board added. Continuing on this path means “we will join the people of Lewiston and too many other communities to name, locked down in our homes, in fear of guns and the wide variety of our fellow Americans ready to use them against us.”

In The Daily Beast, Michael Rocque, a professor at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, who studies mass shootings, wrote about what it was like to live through one.

“Studying mass public shootings can be challenging emotionally. I distinctly recall sitting in my office with a student researcher, painstakingly scrutinizing stories detailing the anger and despair, the planning to take lives indiscriminately, and the fear instilled in affected communities. It would wear us down. At the same time, there was some degree of distance,” Rocque said. “But now, the pain and anguish we read about on computer screens has reached our community.”

“The scenes we are all now accustomed to seeing on our television screens, as news of another unthinkable attack scrolls across chyrons, my neighbors and I saw out our windows and on the streets. In some ways it still feels as if all this is playing out somewhere else, to people we’ve never met. But now, somehow, the terrible stories I’ve been studying for years are now the stories of people in my life,” Rocque wrote. “As I continue to share my thoughts on the attack, including my assessment of the facts as they relate to my scholarship, it all feels surreal to meld these two worlds—academic research and personal tragedy.”

What the right is saying.

  • The right is also saddened by the shooting but argue it was a product of institutional failure and not guns. 
  • Some say Maine and other states should focus on enacting laws that would force the mentally ill into hospitals as a proactive measure. 
  • Others suggest there was little that could have been done to prevent this particular shooting. 

In the Bangor Daily News, Matthew Gagnon argued “our institutions failed us before the Lewiston shooting.”

“By any sober evaluation, it seems apparent that there was a catastrophic human failure here, not necessarily one of law,” Gagnon said. In response, “many people have focused on restricting gun access. I will not blithely dismiss that discussion. There is simply no getting around the fact that America has a lot of guns, and it would not be intellectually honest to dispute that the mass availability of guns makes attacks like this easier to commit. Were there to be a wholesale gun confiscation in America, there would doubtless be fewer attacks like this.

“But no one, even gun control advocates, is proposing that. If they did, it would be both politically impossible to enact, and practically impossible to enforce. Instead, the ideas you hear most of the time relate to banning specific gun types, like the dreaded ‘assault weapon.’ America has tried that before in the past, and the impact on gun violence was negligible, even according to government studies,” Gagnon wrote. In reality, “The inability of society to properly monitor and manage people experiencing mental health crises is behind many problems.” 

The New York Post editorial board said “Maine needs red flag laws and better ways to commit the mentally ill.”

“How on Earth did [the alleged killer] spend time in a mental hospital and then months later get access to deadly weapons?,” the board asked. “Even to the most untrained eye, [he] is the literal textbook example of a person who shouldn’t be allowed to have access to firearms. His case as reported is also proof positive that states need strong involuntary commitment laws uncluttered by red tape, and red flag laws around guns to boot.”

“The state must intervene by making sure the sick person’s getting the treatment they need and keeping them totally isolated from any and all guns. Imagine if cops, prosecutors and mental health workers had acted swiftly to put [him] back in a mental hospital and not let him leave,” the board wrote. “[His] case, like those of so many other mass shooters, indicts national and state mental health authorities.”

In Hot Air, Jazz Shaw wrote “did we learn anything from the Maine shooter? Probably not.”

“[The shooter] truly seems to have slipped through the cracks and this was a case of unfortunate timing more than any glaring gap in the safety precautions that are already in place,” Shaw said. “There were clearly people in the community who had seen warning signs because there were some who told police about [the shooter’s] claims of hearing voices as soon as the manhunt and investigation began. But they apparently never reported that to authorities or, if they did, they didn’t raise serious enough concerns for anyone to get a warrant and come remove any firearms from his home.”

“If there was no legal impediment to the firearm purchase at the time and no compelling argument to take it away from him beforehand, what could have been done to stop [him] short of assigning him a babysitter?,” Shaw asked. “While red flag laws remain controversial among many Second Amendment supporters, Maine already had the equivalent of such a law in place and it didn’t work.”

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • We've had to cover so many of these, I can't help but repeat myself.
  • There are good policies in place that we can better enforce.
  • There are also reasonable, moderate gun control ideas that have broad public support and could help.

One of the most tragic things about this story is how many people did the right thing — only to get this outcome.

The suspect's family, children, and even his fellow soldiers reported him to authorities. I don't think people fully understand how difficult that is. Yet they did it — they alerted the people they were supposed to, and they tried to put the suspect in a system that would stop him before he committed an act of violence.

We're still learning about how and why that didn't work. One key difference between Maine's yellow-flag law and other states' red-flag laws is that, under Maine's law, a person can't simply be reported to a judge or the police and have their guns confiscated. They need to be taken into police custody, and then a medical professional needs to determine that the person is a risk. This suspect was reported by family, by friends, and by fellow Army reservists for making threats, talking about committing a mass shooting, and hearing voices. He appears to have been institutionalized prior to all that, as well. He even acknowledged the institutionalization while filling out a form to buy a silencer.

But, again — this is based on what we know right now — he was never arrested or put into custody. He was never examined by a medical professional in that context, and never legally determined to be a threat to himself or others. So his weapons were never confiscated. That specific difference in the yellow-flag law appears to be crucial.

In general, as is all too common, there are a few refrains from the right and left whenever we face another story like this — increasingly familiar, and increasingly heartbreaking — that I don't lend much credence to.

A lot of people on the right like to point out that these mass shootings, while they receive a lot of press, are a tiny fraction of gun violence and gun deaths in the U.S. (the majority are suicides or shootings with handguns, not rifles). The implication is that, because of the proportions, maybe we shouldn't fret so much legislatively. But that argument ignores the outsized impact these events have on society. They fray and fracture our communities. They destroy people's sense of security. They make us more paranoid, more anxious, and less trusting.  

A lot of people on the left like to point out that there is no place in civil society for "weapons of war" like semi-automatic rifles. And while that conclusion is easy to make in the wake of events like this, the difficult and confounding reality is that banning these kinds of weapons has already been tried and was not very effective. There is very little evidence weapon-focused bans like that are good policy. And like it or not, there is the reality that bans on such weapons are probably unconstitutional, too.

I believe wholeheartedly in the value of the Second Amendment, and I enjoy shooting guns or being around them as much as the next guy. But we also have to accept how totally broken our current situation is, and recognize that there is plenty to do. 

My solutions?

We've had so many shootings that I've written about solutions before, so none of these ideas will be new. One big one that is relevant here is that, as many on the right argue, we do need to enforce the laws we already have. To use cars as an analogy, one of the best ways to prevent deaths from car accidents is speed limits and seatbelt laws. Because we enforce those laws, people tend to follow them, and deaths from car accidents go down. This is true of gun laws, too.

To extend the car analogy, we should also use licensing to create more friction. Cars kill more Americans every day than guns, but we’ve taken steps to increase their safety that we could also apply to gun ownership. And this is probably where ardent Second Amendment activists and I diverge the most, but just like getting a driver's license, you should have to go through safety training to get a gun. That friction will create a little bit more time until someone's ready to purchase a gun, and it will also signal to both potential criminals and law-abiding gun owners that they have to submit themselves to some scrutiny to purchase a weapon. To me, the upside is way bigger than the potential downside.

We also need to follow the laws on the books, which means actually using our background check system the way it was intended. Currently, it is riddled with flaws. Local police, the military, federal and state courts, hospitals, and treatment providers regularly fail to send criminal or mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System when they are supposed to. 

In theory, nobody who has been convicted of a crime, committed to a mental institution, gotten a dishonorable discharge, or has a record of drug addiction should be able to buy a gun with ease. But licensed gun dealers regularly run a clean background check on someone who should be caught by the system. 

It also seems clear that this person was suffering from some kind of paranoid delusions. That is not something that should be swept under the rug. If there are legislators who want to make this a mental health issue, we should embrace that. Why not? It is clear the systems we have in place to treat people with mental illness are inadequate. Just look at our rates of violence, suicide, depression, anxiety, and addiction. These are all blaring red signals that we are not treating such people adequately. Any legislative momentum to address this should be applauded, not ridiculed.

And, directionally, laws like the one in Maine are good policy, too. Even though it didn't work here, that doesn't mean it is bad policy. We'll surely find out someone somewhere — or some group of people — made a bad decision that allowed the Maine shooter to commit this crime. Indeed, we already know that law enforcement opted not to search his home because they thought it was too dangerous to engage him, a stunning and disheartening revelation.

All this is to say: We don't have to agree on everything to be able to find solutions. Some have already been implemented, and need to be acted on. Others are moderate ideas that could go a long way and garner broad public support. A defeatist acceptance of the status quo is the only truly unacceptable path forward.

Your questions, answered

Q: Why is Matt Gaetz not being vilified in the press? Instead, he seems to be given credit for the resulting Speaker. Should we believe Gaetz had any plans when he threw the wrench in the works?

— Mark from Fort Wayne, IN

Tangle: Gaetz has been getting vilified in the press. A lot. Here are two quotes we ran in Tangle, both from right-leaning outlets, during the interval when the House went without a Speaker.

After Kevin McCarthy was ousted, the Wall Street Journal editorial board likened it to Republicans cutting off their own heads. “Members in safe seats can fuel their own fund-raising and careers by claiming to ‘fight’ against all and sundry without doing the hard work to accomplish what they claim to be fighting for. Mr. Gaetz is the prototype of this modern performance artist, as he raises money for a potential run for Florida Governor,” the board wrote.

Following Jim Jordan’s failure to win enough votes to be elected speaker, Noah Rothman said in National Review that the right wing of the party was weaponizing party loyalty to make a name for themselves in the press. “Those Republicans who have little or no use for the party as an institution are weaponizing the loyalty to it among those who do,” Rothman wrote. “MAGA types like Representative Anna Paulina Luna and Matt Gaetz are throwing decorum overboard by singling out their colleagues for condemnation in social media and summoning a mob to reinforce the implied conclusion that this leadership election is a career-defining vote.”

And that’s just from right-leaning papers. Time and time again, Gaetz and the rest of the House Freedom Caucus have been excoriated in the press for seeking attention, halting normal government for narcissism or fundraising, and having no plan for what to do after getting rid of McCarthy. In Tangle, those criticisms have been in the quotes we pulled as well as in my take.

Against that backdrop, though, Gaetz and company have been given credit for getting a more right-leaning speaker elected. That certainly doesn’t erase all the errors they made and criticism they faced leading up to that point, but it is a fact that there’d be no Speaker Mike Johnson without a House Freedom Caucus. 

And House representatives exercising their individual power and party leadership being less centralized is something I’ve consistently favored in my writing. Both of these things can be true: Gaetz leveraged his position to get Johnson elected Speaker, and Gaetz disrupted normal activity in the House for a month in a way that could shortly cause a government shutdown.

Whether you think the credit outweighs the blame, or vice versa, really depends on whether Speaker Johnson ends up shepherding the House in a way you support. 

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

High-profile Democratic politicians are beginning to jockey for position in a post-Biden world. A group of senators and governors are starting to raise their national profiles for potential 2028 presidential bids or entries into the 2024 race (if Biden unexpectedly drops out). Along with Rep. Dean Phillips, who is challenging Biden directly, Govs. Gavin Newsom (CA), Josh Shapiro (PA), J.B. Pritzker (IL), and Gretchen Whitmer (MI) have all traveled to swing states or launched national political groups recently. Sen. Cory Booker (NJ) has $10 million on hand for a Senate race he could transfer to a presidential race, and Rep. Ro Khanna (CA) recently debated Republican presidential nominee Vivek Ramaswamy in New Hampshire. Vice President Kamala Harris is focusing on abortion rights and touring college campuses. Axios has the story.


  • 52%. In a survey of 10,000 voters living in rural areas across the U.S., the percentage who say they support a ban on military-style assault weapons.
  • 67%. In the same survey, the percentage who say they support a complete ban on the purchase of firearms for Americans younger than 21.
  • 98%. The percentage of mass public shooters who are male, according to a 2021 report by National Criminal Justice Reference Service.
  • 60%. The percent decrease in odds of a mass public shooting occurring in states  requiring a permit to purchase a firearm, according to the NCJRS report. 
  • 38%. The average percent decrease in fatalities during a mass shooting in states that  have banned large-capacity magazines, according to the NCJRS report.
  • 14.6. The number of gun deaths per 100,000 people in 2021, according to the Pew Research Center. 
  • 16.3. The number of gun deaths per 100,000 people in 1974, the highest for any year recorded.

The extras.

  • One year ago today we wrote about the attack on Paul Pelosi.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was the ad in the free version for The Town Crier.
  • Labor of love: 627 Tangle readers responded to our poll asking about the UAW deal with the Big Three automakers, with 46% saying they were 'largely supportive.' 21% were 'somewhat supportive,' 13% were 'somewhat opposed,' 11% were 'neither supportive nor opposed,' and 9% were 'largely opposed.' "I'm pro labor, but the long term concerns me," one respondent said.
  • Nothing to do with politics: The secrets of your two noses.
  • Take the poll. What do you think could have been done to prevent this shooting? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

In an astonishing turn of events, a two-year-old girl who had gone missing in Newberry County, South Carolina, was found safe and sound after an intensive, hours-long search effort. The young child had last been seen at approximately 3:00 PM with her mother, but was reported missing later in the day. Then, around 6:00 PM, a deer hunter in the area heard the girl’s cries and placed a 911 call to alert authorities to their location. Newberry County 911 operators sprang into action, pinpointing the hunter’s position and transmitting it to a South Carolina Law Enforcement Division helicopter and the county's dedicated first responders, who were already en route. When the responders reached the group, the missing two-year-old was brought home, safe and unharmed, from the dense forest. In a statement, the Sheriff's Office expressed their relief and emphasized that the two-year-old girl’s safe rescue was truly miraculous. Sunny Skyz has the story

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