Almost 18 years have passed since I first sat down with Bill Harwood at his Portland law firm to talk guns.

Back in January of 2000, Harwood and a who’s-who list of civic leaders had just formed Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence.

It came in response to the 1999 mass killing at Colorado’s Columbine High School, which shocked the nation and spurred calls for a crackdown on the lunacy – or is it something more sophisticated than that? – that fuels this country’s infatuation with firearms.

Tuesday morning, Harwood and I sat down again. Same place. Same issue. But many, many more dead.

I told him how the day before, as I watched the wall-to-wall TV coverage out of Las Vegas and the breathless pronouncements of the “worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history,” I felt strangely numb.

It was as if I’d momentarily lost my capacity to be shocked – and with it, my once-reflexive assumption that this time, things will be different. For the first time, I wondered whether, not when, it will ever end.

Harwood understands the sentiment. He just refuses to accept it.

“We just can’t turn our backs,” he said. “As hard as this damn issue is, as hard as it is to get progress, we just can’t. The consequences are too high to keep letting this go on.”

His group now calls itself the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, a nod to the marketing specialists who suggested that in these polarized times, it’s better to be for something positive (gun safety) than against something negative (madmen with assault weapons).

But its underlying mission remains the same: Stop the insanity.

Push back hard against the gun industry and the politicians it owns lock, stock and barrel.

Reject the knee-jerk notion that the shooters are the only problem here – not the militaristic weapons designed specifically to maximize their carnage.

“You shouldn’t be able to shoot that many bullets, that fast, into a crowd of people,” Harwood said. “It’s just that simple.”

The places pockmark our national conscience like so many trauma scars

Columbine (13 murdered), Virginia Tech (32 murdered), Aurora (12 murdered), Sandy Hook (27 murdered, most of them children), Washington Navy Yard (12 murdered), Charleston (nine murdered, while praying in church), San Bernardino (14 murdered, at a holiday work party), Orlando (49 murdered) and now Las Vegas (58 murdered).

And those are just the national headline grabbers. As The New York Times noted this week, 521 mass shootings (four or more victims) occurred in this country in the 477 days between the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando on June 12, 2016, and Sunday’s attack by Stephen Paddock from his 32nd-floor perch above a country music festival along the Las Vegas strip.

Numb? As the shootings erupt at a rate of more than one per day, it’s as if we’re no longer even paying attention.

Still, Harwood maintains, the pendulum here in Maine has begun to swing, ever so slowly, toward common sense.

In Augusta, where gun legislation of any kind was once dismissed as a fool’s errand, the Maine Gun Safety Coalition has in recent years managed to shepherd through laws that Harwood calls “significant gun bills. I’m not going to call them ‘major’ or ‘huge,’ but they are significant.”

One raised the age for gun ownership from 16 to 18. Another allows judges to keep weapons out of the hands of domestic abusers. Still another enables Maine’s public universities and community colleges to ban firearms on campus.

After decades of kowtowing to the gun lobby, Harwood said, a growing number of Maine lawmakers “are beginning to say, ‘Enough is enough. We’ve done a lot of what the gun lobby asks and it doesn’t seem to get us in a better position. Maybe we need to rethink this.’ ”

Away from the State House, the coalition has handed out more than 25,000 trigger locks to the many responsible Maine gun owners who understand that an unsecured weapon in the home is an invitation to tragedy.

“We believe that there are people alive today because those gun locks were put on those guns,” Harwood said.

But what about the Stephen Paddocks of this world? How, in a country that now has more guns than people, do you stop a psychopath bent on mass murder?

Some say identify the potential shooters and keep them away from guns. Others say identify the most lethal weaponry and keep it away from everyone.

“I think both strategies make sense,” Harwood said. “They’re both important.”

He knows talk like that will earn him more wrath from those whose response to a mass shooting is to run out and buy more guns – which, if they’d only stop and think about it, is exactly what the gun industry is counting on them to do.

Yet Harwood persists – not because there are any easy answers here, but because there is no other option.

Monday morning, as the news began to circulate about the “bump stocks” that enabled Paddock to essentially transform his semi-automatic assault rifles into rapid-fire automatics, the Maine Gun Safety Coalition put up a post on its Facebook page.

It shows a Federal Election Commission receipt for two $10,000 contributions – one from a Texas business called “Silencer Shop,” the other from a company employee – to Team Ryan, the political fundraising operation run by House Speaker Paul Ryan.

The company sells gun silencers. Like fully automatic weapons, they can be owned only with a federal permit.

But that could soon change: Under a bill before Congress, silencers would be as readily available as a run-of-the-mill, Colt AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

Think about that. At a time when you’d think Congress would be scrambling to crack down on “bump stocks” for semi-automatics, it’s instead considering legislation that could slap a silencer on the next mass killer’s smoking hot assault rifle.

The bill’s title: The Hearing Protection Act of 2017.

“You can’t make this stuff up,” said Harwood, shaking his head in disbelief.

No, you can’t.

Nor, as we careen from Las Vegas to the next “worst shooting in modern U.S. history,” can we afford to fall silent.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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