LEWISTON, Maine — President Biden traveled to Lewiston, Maine, on Friday to offer condolences and comfort to a community reeling from the deadliest mass shooting in the history of the state, where 18 people were killed last week.
Joined by first lady Jill Biden, the president began the visit by stopping at the scene of the Oct. 25 massacre, which took place at a bar and a bowling alley. He placed flowers at a makeshift memorial in front of the bar and met with family members of the victims, first responders, local officials and health-care professionals.
In his only planned public remarks, Biden stopped short of advocating for any specific new gun laws, not mentioning an assault weapons ban or the so-called “red flag” laws he has previously called for.
“I’ve been at this a long time. I know consensus is ultimately possible,” the president said, standing in front of the bowling alley where the massacre began. “It’s about common-sense, reasonable, responsible measures to protect our children, our families, our communities. Because regardless of our politics, this is about protecting our freedom to go to a bowling alley, restaurant, school, church without being shot and killed.”
The approach was a departure from his recent visits to communities ravaged by mass shootings. In previous speeches at Monterey Park, Calif., Uvalde, Tex., Buffalo and elsewhere in the wake of massacres, Biden has pushed for an assault weapons ban and other specific measures, arguing that such legislation could save lives.
Instead, the president on Friday focused his remarks on trying to bring healing to a community he said had been “crushed in spirit.”
Biden, whose ability to empathize with grieving families has become part of his political identity, also met privately with relatives of the slain. As a young senator, Biden experienced the death of his first wife and infant daughter in 1972, and in 2015, he faced the death of an adult son, Beau.
“No pain is the same, but we know what it’s like to lose a piece of our soul,” Biden said, a reference to the 18 killed and the 13 injured.
Before his speech, the White House had suggested Biden would use his public remarks to urge members of Congress to enact a slate of new gun control measures, which several advocates have said could have saved lives in Lewiston.
“While Friday will be a solemn day and a time for the president to be with Americans who are in mourning, he will also continue to demand that Congress act,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Thursday. “They must pass an assault weapons ban. They must enact universal background checks. They must help states across the country adopt and strengthen red flag laws.”
Authorities in Maine have indicated that the alleged gunman, Robert Card, 40, used an AR-style rifle during the shootings, which paralyzed the town of about 40,000. While the shooter’s motives are unknown — Card was found dead of a suspected self-inflicted gunshot wound last Friday — law enforcement officials have said he had mental health issues and access to an arsenal of guns.
This summer, Card, a member of the Army Reserve, was sent to a hospital by his military commanders. He spent about two weeks in a mental health facility, authorities said.
In May, Card’s family members contacted police with concerns about his mental health and access to guns, according to the local sheriff. In addition to his relatives, law enforcement officials and government agencies also expressed anxiety about Robert Card and the possible risk he posed to others.
In September, the local sheriff’s office received a letter saying that a soldier who served with Card in the Army Reserve believed that Card might “snap and commit a mass shooting.”
The revelations about various warnings signs have put a spotlight on the laws in Maine, a state that has been fiercely protective of gun rights.
Democratic Gov. Janet Mills has opposed aggressive gun-control measures, even as some members of her party have pushed for tougher rules in a state with relatively loose gun laws, such as allowing permitless carry. Biden met with Mills on Friday and also traveled on Air Force One with Maine Senators Susan Collins (R), and Angus King, an Independent who caucuses with Democrats.
While none of those officials mentioned gun laws during their remarks on Friday, there are some indications that the massacre — followed by a days-long manhunt that left a fear-stricken community on lockdown before Card was found — has affected the political dynamics in Maine.
Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat who had enjoyed an A+ rating from gun rights advocates, said last week that he regretted his past opposition to an assault weapons ban and would now support one.
“The time has now come for me to take responsibility for this failure, which is why I now call on the United States Congress to ban assault rifles, like the one used by the sick perpetrator of this mass killing in my hometown of Lewiston, Maine,” Golden said.
Mills, who invited Biden to Maine, has said she would be open to reviewing the state’s laws. Some officials have seized on Maine’s so-called “yellow flag” law, a compromise allowing police to temporarily confiscate firearms and detain individuals they deem pose a threat. The law, which went into effect in 2020, was not triggered in Card’s case.
Maine does not have a red-flag law, which would allow family members or friends to ask a court to take firearms away from a person thought to be at risk of self-harm or to pose a danger to others. Such laws require law enforcement to seek a mental health evaluation for an individual before getting a court order to seize their firearms.
Biden, who signed a bipartisan gun-control bill last year, has urged more states to enact red-flag laws, which exist in about 20 states. The bill he signed included additional funds for states to enact and strengthen red-flag laws.
That legislation, which combined modest new firearms restrictions with $15 billion in mental health and school security funding, was the first significant firearms legislation in decades, though it was considered woefully inadequate by gun control advocates.
Mass shootings have been a constant theme during Biden’s presidency, just as they were under his recent predecessors. In addition to signing the package of gun control and mental health measures into law last year, Biden has signed executive orders seeking to combat gun violence while expressing frustration that Congress would not enact more sweeping measures.
In September, he announced the creation of a new White House office for gun violence prevention. Since taking office, Biden has traveled to several communities in the wake of massacres.
“This tragedy opens painful, painful wounds, all across the country,” Biden said Friday. “Too many Americans have lost loved ones or survived the trauma of gun violence. I know because Jill and I have met with them.”