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After Shooting, Maine Senators in the Spotlight on Guns

The mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine, coupled with a conservative Democratic congressman’s reversal on an assault weapons ban, has turned the spotlight on the state’s two senators, Susan Collins, a moderate Republican, and Angus King, a Democrat-leaning independent, both of whom are skeptical about banning military-style rifles.

Representative Jared Golden, among the most conservative Democrats in the House, rushed back to his Lewiston district on Thursday, as a gunman who killed 18 people in his hometown remained at large. He then stunned constituents in his traditionally pro-gun district by declaring that it was time for him “to take responsibility” for his “failure” to back a ban on assault weapons, “like the one used by the sick perpetrator of this mass killing.”

Mr. Golden’s reversal is likely to put pressure on Maine’s senators, both of whom boast of occupying the political center and have used that position to forge significant bipartisan compromises in the past, including gun safety legislation passed last year after the murder of children in Uvalde, Texas. Ms. Collins, in particular, has taken heat from Democrats who say her professions of moderation have faltered at crucial times.

Mr. King, who is standing for re-election in 2024, joined Republicans — including Ms. Collins — on Wednesday to back an amendment to a spending bill that would prohibit the Department of Veterans Affairs from automatically sending veterans’ personal information to the federal firearms background check system if they are deemed mentally unfit to manage their benefits.

In an interview on Friday, Mr. King said Mr. Golden’s reversal on assault weapons “took a lot of courage.” He added, however, that he also remained opposed to the current Democratic proposal that would ban 205 specific models of rifles, and any weapon with “one or more military characteristics including a pistol grip, a forward grip, a barrel shroud, a threaded barrel or a folding or telescoping stock.”

Much of Maine remains unsettled and on lockdown in the aftermath of a mass shooting in Lewistown.Credit…Sophie Park for The New York Times

Instead, Mr. King said, he and colleagues would introduce legislation — possibly next week — focused on what a gun does, not how it looks. Most important, the legislation would mandate that semiautomatic rifles would have to have a fixed, permanent magazine that fits no more than 10 bullets. That way, a shooter could not load a high-capacity magazine with dozens of bullets, or carry several extra magazines to quickly reload.

His legislation would also permanently ban “bump stocks” that make semiautomatic weapons operate like machine guns. He said he was looking into bullet design to make rifles less lethal.

“An assault weapons ban is essentially based on cosmetics, what the gun looks like,” he said. “I’m focused on what it does.”

Ms. Collins has said she too supports a ban on bump stocks and high-capacity magazines. She is the last Republican in the Senate who voted in 2013 for near-universal background checks on a bill that fell narrowly to a filibuster. But her spokeswoman, Annie Clark, said that while Ms. Collins continues to back expanded background checks, she remains opposed to the assault weapons ban awaiting action in the Senate.

The carnage in Lewiston came as a shock to Maine, which the F.B.I., in a statistical update on crime Monday, called the safest state in the country. It also has one of the largest percentages of gun ownership.

“Our state has a long history of responsible gun ownership,” Mr. King said.

Senator Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, is also opposed to an assault weapons ban.Credit…Al Drago for The New York Times

With its underpopulated rural reaches and legions of hunters and fishermen, Maine has long been a bastion of gun rights. Its Legislature and governorship are controlled by Democrats, but the state has never moved to ban types of firearms.

But it does have what is known as a “yellow flag” law, which allows law enforcement to detain people they believe to be mentally ill and a threat to themselves or others. Unlike stricter “red flag” laws, Maine requires the police to first get a medical practitioner to evaluate the person before law enforcement can ask a judge to allow the seizure of firearms.

On Thursday, Ms. Collins said the hospitalization of the suspect in Lewiston should have triggered Maine’s yellow flag law, but she could not say why it didn’t.

With Republicans in control of the House and Democrats holding a one-seat majority in the Senate, talk of an assault weapons ban is academic for now. In the wake of the Maine shooting, the new House speaker, Mike Johnson of Louisiana, told Fox News’ Sean Hannity, “The problem is the human heart, not guns.”

If anything, political power flows against gun control, as evidenced in Wednesday’s vote to limit the authority of the secretary of veterans affairs to refer veterans’ mental health issues to the background check system.

The amendment, sponsored by Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, passed with 53 votes, including those of Mr. King and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, a former Democrat who is now an independent, as well as the Democrats Jon Tester of Montana, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Jacky Rosen of Nevada, all of whom face re-election next year.

“The law now puts veterans in a different category than anyone else with no due process,” Mr. King said.

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