Oct. 26—Maine's yellow flag law was supposed to prevent the kind of mass shooting that claimed 18 lives in Lewiston Wednesday night.
The law allows police officers to seize weapons from people who are a risk to themselves or others. But it was not invoked against Robert Card, 40, of Bowdoin, even though local law enforcement said he spent weeks in a mental health facility this summer, claimed to hear voices, and threatened to shoot up a National Guard base in Saco.
The law, considered by some to be a model for national legislation because of its due-process safeguards, is now sure to face renewed scrutiny as gun control activists here and across the U.S. call for tougher gun laws. But it's unclear whether Wednesday's shooting — the second mass shooting in Maine this year — will change lawmakers' attitudes or lead to reforms that have repeatedly been rejected in the State House.
Gun restrictions always have been difficult to pass in Maine, which has a long tradition of hunting and a high rate of gun ownership. That remained true after a man released from prison in April got his hands on multiple weapons and killed four people in Bowdoin and shot and injured three others on Interstate 295.
Even with Democrats in control of the Blaine House and both chambers of the Legislature, lawmakers this year rejected bills that would have required background checks on private gun sales, a 72-hour waiting period on firearm purchases, or a ban on rapid-fire devices such as bump stocks.
Gun control advocates, including the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, Everytown for Gun Safety, Center for American Progress, and the Violence Policy Center all called on state officials to adopt increased protections. And President Biden renewed his call for a nationwide ban on assault weapons.
Gov. Janet Mills, who helped negotiate the state's yellow flag law, had pledged her opposition to a series of gun control proposals during her reelection campaign. She told the Sportsmen's Alliance of Maine, a powerful gun rights lobbying group representing gun owners, that she opposed background checks on private gun sales and a ban on high-capacity magazines.
That seemed to change after the Bowdoin killings in April when the Mills administration and Sportsmen's Alliance began private negotiations in hopes of drafting significant new gun safety legislation. No legislation ever materialized.
Mills' aides did not directly respond to questions Thursday about what was being discussed last session, or whether the governor has changed her position on gun control legislation in the wake of the mass shootings.
"The governor's focus right now is on putting the full weight of her administration behind law enforcement's efforts to capture the suspect, to fully understand the facts and circumstances involving last night's tragedy, and to convey love and support to those injured and the family and friends of those lost," spokesperson Ben Goodman said. "With those facts in hand, she believes the people of Maine deserve a robust discussion about public safety at the state and federal levels in the coming weeks."
David Trahan, the executive director of the Sportsmen's Alliance, did not respond Thursday to an email and a voicemail requesting an interview.
The Maine Gun Safety Coalition, meanwhile, cited Maine's "weak gun laws" in a written statement Thursday, calling for an assault weapons ban at a minimum.
"We watched in horror as the tragedy in Lewiston, Maine happened before our eyes — the result of our weak gun laws," board Chair Cam Shannon said in a statement. "We call on our elected officials tonight to stop bowing to the gun lobby and look squarely at the face of what has happened in Maine's second-largest city. At a minimum, The Maine Gun Safety Coalition believes an assault weapons ban is necessary to try to prevent more such tragedies in our state."
Angela Ferrell-Zabala, executive director of Moms Demand Action, hammered the argument from gun rights supporters that firearm access makes everyone safer.
"If access to guns made us safer, America would be the safest country in the world," Farrell-Zabala said. "Instead, we live in a place where you may get shot and killed by a weapon of war while simply living your life. We refuse to accept this as our reality."
Assistant House Majority Leader Kristen Cloutier, D-Lewiston, called for "bold action" to address gun violence in a written statement. In an interview, Cloutier didn't have any specific legislation in mind, but highlighted her support last session for expanding background checks, instituting a waiting period, and banning rapid-fire devices.
"I'm not sure I have exact solutions for that," Cloutier said. "It's disappointing to me that we have had so many mass shootings across the country and now so close to home. It seems like this is an opportunity to reflect on that, now that it's close to home."
Rep. Michel Lajoie, D-Lewiston, voted against a bill that would have required background checks on private sales. On Thursday, Lavoie said he would support the measure if it were reintroduced, as long as it includes an exemption for sales within families.
"I think you're going to find a lot of minds have been changed with this action, which is very tragic and really should not have happened," Lajoie said.
Senate and House Republicans issued a joint statement saying they were "monitoring the horrific situation in the greater Lewiston area as the manhunt is underway," while noting the heroic efforts of law enforcement, first responders, and hospitals.
But Republican leaders also said it was too soon to talk about new gun control laws.
House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, said he was "appalled people are moving that quickly to fit an agenda," accusing gun control advocates of politicizing a tragedy while the manhunt is underway.
Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, said it was too soon to talk about possible new laws since the suspect was still on the loose and the exact details of the shooting are not yet known.
"There will be a time for an empirical analysis that's actually based on facts when emotions and cooler heads can prevail," Stewart said. "Let's get him brought in first and then we'll figure out what went wrong."
Maine rolled out the yellow flag law in 2020 after officials rejected the more common red flag law adopted by many states.
Both versions are aimed at getting guns out of the hands of people experiencing a mental health crisis. Maine's version requires a medical assessment and recommendation, while police can act without those things in states with red flag laws.
Since 2020, Maine's yellow flag law has been used 81 times to prohibit people who are considered to be a risk to themselves or others from accessing firearms. Access is restricted for 14 days and can be extended to a year after a court hearing, Strick said.
"Each of these is really avoiding a suicide, a homicide, or a deadly force incident," said Ben Strick, the vice president of behavioral health at Spurwink Services, a nonprofit counseling agency that conducts remote assessments. "We have had a dramatic increase in utilization and it's capturing the right kind of people, so I wouldn't want to criticize the law in any way. At the same time, this is an important time to look at the law and ask if we're making full use of it."
Strick said he could not discuss whether the law was ever applied to Card, citing a lack of information and confidentiality rules. But state records indicate it was not.
A bulletin issued by the Maine Information Analysis Center said local law enforcement had reported that Card had mental health problems, including hearing voices, and threatened to "shoot up" a National Guard base in Saco. He reportedly spent a few weeks at a mental health facility this summer.
A list provided by the state of weapon restrictions issued under the yellow flag law does not contain names, but it does include dates, locations, ages, and situations for each individual subject to the description of a weapon. None of those match up with Card.
That is likely because Card was reportedly in New York when he made the statements. The Associated Press reported that Card was training with the Army Reserve's 3rd Battalion, 304th Infantry Regiment in West Point, New York, at the time. New York state police took Card to the Keller Army Community Hospital at West Point for an evaluation, the AP reported, citing an anonymous official.
Sam Levy, the regional director of Everytown for Gun Safety, said Card's situation, if those details are verified by the full investigation, reveals the weakness of Maine's law.
By comparison, a so-called red flag law that exists in more than 20 other states could have allowed a family member or friend who knew about the out-of-state incident to seek a restriction on Card's access to guns, based on his comments and prior hospitalization.
"The details are still emerging, but what I have seen from reporting is that all the incidents and all the threats took place in New York," Levy said.
"No Maine law enforcement officer could have invoked the yellow paper process," he said. "Had it happened in Maine and had he been taken in protective custody, the process could have been initiated. Whether it would have been is a separate question."
Sun Journal Staff Writer Christopher Williams contributed to this report.