On June 13, the day after the greatest mass shooting in this nation’s history, I issued a deeply personal statement in my public capacity as chairman of the Maine Democratic Party. It would be a perverse exercise to attempt to quantify the relative horror of such astonishing acts of violence. But on that occasion, my reaction was visceral. Forty-nine individuals were slaughtered in just one night by a lone gunman targeting the LGBT community — my community.

The statement I released was heartfelt and, at the time, felt meaningful. It captured my profound sadness as a gay man. It called for a show of support for the LGBT community. And it asserted that “we owe Orlando more than just our thoughts and prayers. We owe them meaningful legislative action that will keep guns out of the hands of terrorists and criminals.”

But less than a month after Orlando, there was Dallas. Five police officers were picked off by a sniper in the deadliest attack on law enforcement since September 11. It was a devastating reminder that in the month that followed the Orlando shooting, we have achieved nothing tangible that would help prevent the next massacre.

The day after the Dallas shooting, my team and I started to put together another statement. But as we talked, we found ourselves effectively working from a draft of the earlier release. It was chillingly easy. Just replace “Orlando” with “Dallas.” Change “LGBT community” to “law enforcement community.” Swap out the language about how personal the shooting felt to me as a gay man for how personal this shooting feels to those who count police officers among their loved ones. Keep the call to action and the vision of a “world in which the 2nd Amendment and responsible gun ownership are not mutually exclusive.” Then go ahead and hit “send” and make sure you save the template for the next mass shooting.

The rote nature of such writing is nauseating; its narrative unsustainable. We can only change it by changing the narrative around guns completely — and we need both parties to buy in.

The National Rifle Association was once a respectable club for gun owners. It has since become a political machine for gun manufacturers who dole out campaign contributions in exchange for inaction. The politicians trapped in its grasp have built a narrative of fear, have misled law-abiding citizens to believe that Democrats will come to take away guns. That suggestion, aside from its utter lack of veracity, perpetuates this country’s paralysis on gun violence. It precludes any serious conversation on what can be done to keep guns away from those who plow down police officers, club-goers, or six-year-old children. It leaves our movie theaters, churches and classrooms prime potential targets for the next great massacre. It does nothing to make us more safe in any mundane public place.


Democrats, as a whole, have not been deliberately obstructive, but some of our urban leaders have played a role in the gridlock. Though well-meaning, they lose credibility with responsible gun owners when they demonstrate their ignorance of the most basic terminology. For example, one New York lawmaker defined a barrel shroud as the “shoulder thing that goes up” while another thought that incendiary rounds were “heat-seeking devices.”

Someone who has never held a gun should never feign understanding of its mechanics. And someone who has never lived in a rural area should never feign understanding of rural heritage.

Though their cause is just, advocates for responsible gun ownership are often not gun owners themselves. They have likely never been to places such as Oxford County, where my father taught me how to hunt. They have never cooked meat from an animal they shot themselves, or worried how to subsidize their grocery bill after seasonal work runs out and there is nothing left but the harsh winter ahead. Simply put, they don’t understand the connection between guns and Mainers’ deep connection to the land. This is where the disconnect between urban Democrats and the rural working people whose support they are losing lies.

Here in Maine, our state party intimately understands that guns signify independence, as guns allow us to feed our children and defend our families. But we are a small state with limited influence over national political dialogue. Every police officer in the country now has a target on his or her back.

Will that reality finally spur both Republicans and Democrats to put aside the talking points and have a real conversation about how to keep guns from the hands of people we agree shouldn’t have them? If not, we’ll keep reliving these horrors through a stream of heartfelt but hauntingly familiar public statements.

Phil Bartlett is the chairman of the Maine Democratic Party.

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