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Use of Maine's 'yellow flag' law has surged since the Lewiston mass shooting

FILE - Crime scene tape still surrounds Schemengees Bar & Grille as a Lewiston Police Hazmat officer blocks the entrance, Oct. 29, 2023, in Lewiston, Maine. A Maine law that can be used to restrict access to guns during a mental health crisis has been invoked more than a dozen times since the Oct. 25 mass shooting in Lewiston — the deadliest in state history — with several people invoking the name of the gunman who killed 18 people.
Matt York
/
AP
FILE - Crime scene tape still surrounds Schemengees Bar & Grille as a Lewiston Police Hazmat officer blocks the entrance, Oct. 29, 2023, in Lewiston, Maine. A Maine law that can be used to restrict access to guns during a mental health crisis has been invoked more than a dozen times since the Oct. 25 mass shooting in Lewiston — the deadliest in state history — with several people invoking the name of the gunman who killed 18 people.

Usage of Maine's "yellow flag" law has surged since last month's mass shooting in Lewiston that left 18 people dead.

Police agencies across the state have invoked Maine's yellow flag law 14 times since Oct. 25 as they sought to temporarily prohibit someone from accessing their guns or other weapons, according to the latest figures from the attorney general’s office.

Prior to the Lewiston mass shooting, police had used the law 81 times, but after factoring in the latest incidents, nearly 15% of the total cases have occurred in the past three weeks. That could suggest either police are more open to using the 3-year-old law or that there has been an uptick in calls for potentially suicidal or homicidal individuals since the mass shooting.

In at least three of the recent cases, the person in question made reference to the Lewiston shooter, Robert R. Card II.

In Brunswick earlier this week, for instance, a 29-year-old referenced Card along with “claims he’s being ordered to kill his parents or son,” according to general descriptions of the incidents provided by Attorney General Aaron Frey’s office. Just a day earlier in Lewiston, meanwhile, police sought to apply the yellow flag process to a 50-year-old with a “history of suicidal/homicidal ideations (who) told family he was going to do with Robert Card did, but with a knife.”

There are questions about why police didn't attempt to apply the law to Card before he shot 31 people in Lewiston in the worst mass shooting in state history. Police had been aware for months that family members and fellow Army reservists were concerned about his deteriorating mental health and his access to guns.

Deputies with the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office attempted to speak with Card twice at his home in Bowdoin in September, roughly six weeks before the shooting. But they were unsuccessful, although in one case a deputy believed Card was in the home at the time. Instead, family members and Army Reserve leaders told police that they would attempt to remove Card’s guns and connect him with mental health treatment.

Maine's yellow flag law requires both a medical professional and a judge to agree that the person poses a potential threat to themselves or others. That allows police to temporarily separate a person from their guns for up to a year, although a person can petition for their return during periodic hearings.

More than 20 other states have more sweeping “red flag” laws that typically allow family members to directly petition the courts to force someone to surrender their guns without going to the police first. But after a red flag proposal failed in the state Legislature in 2019, lawmakers approved the country’s first and only “yellow flag” law in 2019 as part of a compromise negotiated with gun owners’ rights advocates, who argued the red flag versions did not adequately protect the targeted person’s constitutional rights.

The law has been invoked by police 95 times since July 2020, although it was unclear from the document provided by the attorney general’s office how many of those resulted in a weapons forfeiture. The vast majority of those cases — both since July 2020 and since the Lewiston mass shooting — have involved potentially suicidal individuals.

Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts or other kinds of emotional distress can call or text the suicide and crisis lifeline at 988 or chat with someone online at 988lifeline.org. The free, confidential service is available 24/7.

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