What’s the next worse thing to a mentally unstable person with a gun?

A mentally unstable, high-ranking government official urging people to lock and load because civil war is just around the corner.

“If you carry guns, buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it’s going to be hard to get,” Michael Caputo, the embattled communications chief for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, warned his followers Sunday in a now-infamous Facebook video. The same video in which he warned that leftist “hit squads” are training for an armed uprising in America’s streets should Donald Trump win re-election in November.

Caputo, by any measure, is a deeply troubled man. In his 26-minute Facebook rant, he also spoke of ominous shadows on the ceiling of his apartment in Washington, D.C., and readily acknowledged that “my mental health has definitely failed.”

Not surprisingly, Caputo has taken a break from his duties to try to get his head on straight. Very surprisingly, he still has a job.

But here’s the truly scary part. In a country simultaneously beset by multiple crises, Caputo becomes the latest member of Team Trump (led by the president himself) to start lighting matches and mindlessly throwing them into what has become a national powder keg.

Already here in Maine, like so many other places, you can smell something burning:

On Monday, 84-year-old George Kibitz made his initial court appearance in Knox County on a charge of criminal threatening after he allegedly entered a supermarket in Rockland on June 28 and confronted a couple who were not masked as mandated during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to police, Kibitz lifted his shirt to show a gun and told the two other shoppers that maybe he would shoot people who aren’t wearing face coverings.

A similar incident occurred a month later at a Dunkin’ in Rockland when a masked customer confronted an unmasked one, prompting the latter to imply he had a gun under his shirt. No charges were filed, police said, because there was no explicit threat.

Early in the morning of Aug. 1 in Portland, the driver of a vehicle parked near a homeless encampment in front of City Hall fired several shots from a handgun after a brief encounter with protesters – one of whom, according to police, had detonated a firecracker near the vehicle. Thankfully, no one was injured.

On Labor Day, Portland police charged 33-year-old Rocco Wong with criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon after he allegedly displayed a handgun in a threatening manner during a confrontation with a motorcyclist in the Old Port. Wong was on his way to another City Hall protest at the time, and police wisely waited until after the gathering had dispersed to quietly arrest him without incident.

The anecdotal list goes on. But just as concerning as these near misses is a mounting body of evidence that 2020, when it comes to gun sales, will go down as a banner year in Maine.

As the Portland Press Herald reported in March, it started with a run on ammunition amid anxieties spawned by the pandemic. And it continues, as reported Tuesday by the Bangor Daily News, with a startling surge in attempted gun purchases so far this year – as shown in background-check statistics compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

According to the FBI data, 70,244 Mainers tried to purchase firearms between March and August of this year. That’s almost a 69 percent increase from the 41,625 background checks requested by Mainers during the same period in 2019.

When it comes specifically to handguns, Mainers accounted for 35,702 background checks between March and August – a 96 percent increase over the 18,203 checks during the same six months last year.

In other words, assuming most of those background checks led to gun purchases, there are a lot more firearms in circulation throughout Maine this year – and even those tallies fail to reflect the untold number of private firearms sales that require no background check whatsoever.

Thus it’s not a stretch, when you enter your local supermarket these days, to wonder what percentage of the customers around you are armed and ready to shoot.

Which raises another alarming question, especially regarding those who went out and bought their first handgun this year because they’re afraid of … whatever: Do they have a clue how to handle a weapon?

“Unlike other states, we have no requirement that you show any proficiency with a weapon, that you know how to use it defensively,” Geoff Bickford, executive director of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, said in an interview Wednesday. “There’s no (mandatory) pistol-permit course, there’s no self-defense course that you have to pass to show that at least you know how to handle the thing, how to store it safely, that you know when to use it, that you have some passing knowledge of what the laws are in this state.”

My long-held fear, made only worse by these tense, angry times: One of those supermarket confrontations leads to a shot actually being fired, the sound of which prompts other shoppers throughout the store to unholster their weapons. Imagine being the first police officer on the scene, looking for one bad guy amid aisles crawling with pistol-toting “bystanders.”

Or this scenario: A dual street protest where elements from both sides are armed. One shot leads to another, and to another, until what was a peaceful demonstration devolves into a shootout with countless innocent people caught in the crossfire.

Which brings us back to Michael Caputo and his ultimate boss.

By telling his Facebook followers – and the world at large – that “when Donald Trump refuses to stand down at the inauguration, the shooting will begin,” Caputo tried to paint a picture where violence comes only from the highly trained insurrectionists on the left and that the powder keg will explode only if Trump wins re-election.

But at its core, his message is a call to arms. It foments the same vigilante pot Trump stirred in May when he proclaimed, in response to the protests over the police killing of George Floyd, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Caputo is at least out of the fray for now. The Department of Health and Human Services announced Wednesday that he will take a 60-day leave of absence “to focus on his health and the well-being of his family.”

But he leaves behind a president still hell-bent on doing whatever he can to keep Americans on edge, frightened to the point where going out and buying a gun suddenly doesn’t sound so bizarre anymore.

It is bizarre.

And like Caputo, those who arm themselves for a trip to the grocery store – or the next protest – need to take a deep breath.


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