Barely four years before a gunman’s deadly rampage in Maine, a state that is staunchly protective of gun rights, the governor signed a law aimed at preventing a mass shooting like the one Wednesday night that claimed at least 18 lives.
It was called a “yellow flag” law, different from the “red flag” laws cropping up in other states to seize weapons from gun owners viewed as a threat. In a sign of the pro-Second Amendment mindset in Maine, a gun-rights group helped write the law, and critics said that, while it was a first step toward stronger gun safety measures, the state could save more lives by doing more — like passing a red flag law.
The yellow flag law and permissive gun measures in Maine are coming under greater scrutiny in the aftermath of a massacre that authorities say was carried out by a man who was committed to a mental health facility for two weeks this past summer and had reported “hearing voices and threats to shoot up” a military base.
It was not clear whether anyone had used the yellow flag law in the suspect’s case, but gun-control advocates on Thursday blamed the killings on what one called Maine’s “weak gun laws.”
Vice President Kamala Harris said gun violence is the leading cause of death for children in the U.S. and called on Congress to pass stronger laws, including making background checks universal, passing a red flag law and banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
“It is a false choice to suggest we must choose between either upholding the Second Amendment or passing reasonable gun safety laws to save lives,” Harris said in a statement.
In recent years, anti-gun violence groups in Maine have repeatedly failed in pushing for stronger laws, even with Democratic control of the Legislature and governor’s office.
On Thursday, they vowed to try again.
At a minimum, the Maine Gun Safety Coalition wants the state to ban assault weapons to prevent more mass shootings, said Cam Shannon, the group’s chair.
Elected officials must “stop bowing to the gun lobby and look squarely at the face of what has happened in Maine’s second largest city,” Shannon said.
U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a centrist Democrat from Lewiston, told reporters Thursday he has reversed his opposition to an assault weapons ban as a result of the tragedy.
“I now call on the United States Congress to ban assault rifles, like the one used by the perpetrator of this mass killing my hometown,” Golden told a news conference.
But Congress has been mostly unable to pass significant gun control, even after previous tragedies such as the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where 20 first-graders and six adults were gunned down.
Maine is one of about 20 states that allow permitless carry — having a concealed weapon in public without a permit — and the state has a longstanding culture of gun ownership that is tied to its traditions of hunting and sport shooting.
Gun rights advocates have for years held up Maine as an example of a place with unrestrictive gun laws and little violent crime.
Wednesday night’s mass shooting is especially difficult to stomach considering the recent failures to strengthen Maine’s gun laws, said Lynn Ellis of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition.
“It’s infuriating,” Ellis said.
Those failures include a statewide referendum in 2016 in which voters defeated a proposal to expand background checks on gun purchases. Earlier this year, lawmakers rejected proposals to require background checks for private gun sales and create a 72-hour waiting period for gun purchases.
Democratic Gov. Janet Mills has also voiced skepticism of some gun control proposals in recent years.
A proposal for a red flag law that more than 20 states have adopted failed in 2019 in favor of the yellow flag law that backers said would stop suicides and protect both the public and the constitutional rights of gun owners.
The yellow flag law had the support of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, which was instrumental in writing it and viewed other states’ red flag laws as unconstitutional. Some also saw the suicide rate as a far bigger concern in Maine than mass shootings.
Under it, law enforcement can detain someone they suspect is mentally ill and poses a threat to themselves or others.
The law differs from red flag laws in that it requires police first to get a medical practitioner to evaluate the person and find them to be a threat before police can petition a judge to order the person’s firearms to be seized.
Gun-control advocates had criticized the law as ham-handed and unlikely to be used by families who don’t want to traumatize a loved one by having them taken into custody.
Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said she thinks a ban on high-capacity magazines is the best approach to stop this kind of gun violence. She also said at a news conference that from what she has heard, the yellow flag law should have been enforced.
“The fact, the suspect was hospitalized for two weeks for mental illness should have triggered the yellow flag law. He should have been separated from his weapons,” Collins said at a news conference Thursday in Lewiston. “I’m sure that after the fact, that it’s going to be looked at very closely.”
But the limited details released by police don’t make it clear whether the yellow flag law should have stopped the suspect in the Lewiston shootings or where he got any guns he used.
It’s also not clear whether the suspect’s commitment to a mental health facility triggered a federal restriction against possessing guns.
Since the 1960s, federal law and most states have prohibited people from possessing guns if they have been formally committed to a mental health facility, said Lindsay Nichols, policy director at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Not everyone who stays at a facility is considered formally committed, though. Formal commitment is a court process that’s usually required to keep someone at a facility longer than about 14 days, she said.
A judge typically must approve a formal commitment, which is then sent to the background-check system required for gun purchases at licensed firearm dealers. If someone tries to buy a gun after being committed to a facility, it appears on a background check and the gun store won’t sell the weapon.
But there have been errors in that system. For instance, authorities don’t always submit the correct information about a commitment quickly enough to the national background check system.
And even if a hold is in the system, background checks aren’t required at unlicensed or private sellers in many states.
“It is far too easy for people with dangerous histories to get guns,” Nichols said. “Policymakers need tighter restrictions so guns can be kept away from people who are dangerous.”
Overall, however, people with mental illnesses are not at a significantly higher risk of being violent towards others than those without a diagnosis, she said.
In fact, people with mental illnesses are far more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators, and access to firearms is a big part of the problem, mental health experts say.
On Thursday morning, gun control advocates in the state began organizing and the Maine Legislature’s gun safety caucus met. Democratic state Rep. Kristen Cloutier, a former Lewiston mayor, called the shootings “surreal and heartbreaking” and called for stronger measures to prevent gun violence.
“This has only strengthened my own resolve to do whatever I can to help prevent similar tragedies like this from happening again in other communities,” Cloutier said.
Whitehurst reported from Washington, D.C., and Levy reported from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Additional files from Reuters.