Here's a timely question: Is Maine doing everything it can to make sure people deemed dangerous to themselves or others don't get their hands on a firearm?
And here's the troubling answer: Not by a long shot.
Last week, amid the nationwide chorus demanding tighter gun controls in the wake of the mass murder in Newtown, Conn., a group called Mayors Against Illegal Guns dusted off its year-old report titled "Fatal Gaps -- How Missing Records in the Federal Background Check System Put Guns in the Hands of Killers."
Among the organization's findings: When it comes to ensuring that people involuntarily committed by a judge to a mental health facility end up in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), Maine falls somewhere between dismal and potentially disastrous.
As of November 2011, the mayors' group reported, only 35 Mainers were listed on the NICS -- and thus prohibited from owning a gun -- due to involuntary mental health commitment.
And since then?
"We haven't submitted any new names in a couple of years," said Maine Department of Public Safety spokesman Steve McCausland in an interview Friday. "The last time we did that was, as I recall, two or three years ago."
A little history:
Back in 2008, in the wake of the mass murder, the nation's worst ever, by a deranged gunman at Virginia Tech, the Maine Legislature passed a law requiring that the Maine Bureau of Identification be notified whenever a judge orders someone involuntarily committed for treatment of mental illness.
The bureau would then pass the person's name and date of birth on to the NICS, which in turn would red-flag the individual should he or she later go out and try to buy a gun. (Under a decades-old federal law, a person who has been "adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution" cannot own a firearm.)
But the new state law came with a catch: Neither the courts nor the Bureau of Identification had to do anything, it stated, "until the judicial branch and the Department of Public Safety receive sufficient funding for (the reporting system's) implementation."
That price tag was set at $203,000 -- all in federal funds. And four years later, the state has yet to receive a dime -- hence the scarcity of involuntary commitment reports.
"There's a Catch 22 here," said Mary Ann Lynch, spokeswoman for the Maine court system. "We need funding to do this, to make the changes. We need funding to be in compliance (with federal reporting requirements). However, if your state is not in compliance, you're not eligible for (federal) funding."
Maine's compliance problems are twofold, Lynch said.
First, the state's antiquated, paper-based court records system falls woefully short when it comes to timely tracking of cases, communication between the judiciary and other branches of government and just plain efficiency.
Repeated pleas by the courts to the Legislature to fund a complete information technology overhaul -- another request is expected this spring -- have so far fallen on deaf ears.
The second problem, Lynch said, is that Maine's law is less restrictive than the federal firearms law: The state statute does not require reporting of a short-term, non-judicial involuntary commitment (know in Maine as a "blue paper"), while the federal law prohibits gun ownership for anyone who has been involuntarily committed, regardless of the process or the duration.
(Further complicating the state-federal disconnect was a recent ruling by the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals that sided with Maine's approach -- without a due-process hearing before a judge, the court ruled, a person's right to own a firearm cannot be denied.)
Bottom line, Maine's reporting system is not working. And while Lynch can't say for sure how many Mainers should be on the NICS but aren't, she does know that courts statewide received 5,076 petitions for involuntary commitment in the last five years.
Speaking for the Bureau of Identification, McCausland noted, "I suspect there are far more than a few dozen who should be on that list."
He added, "If we had the names, we would have submitted them. But we don't generate the names -- they come from the court system. We're just the messenger here."
So now what?
According to Lynch, the judicial branch just last month approved a paper form designed, however inefficiently, to improve communications on involuntary commitments between the courts and the Bureau of Identification.
"So we are slowly making progress," Lynch said. "But admittedly it's progress on a paper work-around."
And what say Maine's mayors?
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, a member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, said he supports tightening the reporting system so that people who are clearly a danger to the community or themselves cannot walk into a local gun shop and walk out with an semi-automatic assault rifle.
But at the same time, Brennan said, ample research shows that people with mental illness, absent aggravating factors like substance abuse, are no more violent than the rest of society.
"So we need to make sure we're not casting the net so wide as to affect people and stigmatize people in ways that we shouldn't," said Brennan.
No argument there, Mr. Mayor. But if someone has been deemed dangerous enough to be hospitalized against his or her will, it's in nobody's interest for that person, upon being released, to have access to a handgun, an assault rifle or anything in between.
Augusta Mayor William Stokes, also a member of the national group, said he fully understands the difficulties faced by the courts as they try to meet 21st century reporting requirements with 20th century technology.
As chief of the Maine Attorney General's Office's criminal division, on the other hand, Stokes also appreciates better than most what can happen when a gun gets into the wrong hands.
"It can't be that hard," said Stokes. "Whatever the law says should be reported, should be reported."
While there's still time.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: