AUGUSTA — Lawmakers heard hours of emotional testimony Tuesday on both sides of a proposal to allow police to temporarily seize guns from individuals believed to pose an imminent threat to themselves or others.

One of dozens of so-called “red flag” bills under discussion nationwide, the measure was viewed by supporters as one of the only hopes for policy changes in Maine amid the national debate over gun control. Yet the sizable turnout against the bill, combined with the dwindling number of days left in the legislative session, bodes ill for a bipartisan bill aimed at helping to keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill or potentially violent individuals.

The bill, L.D. 1884, would allow a family or household member as well as police to seek a “community protection order” against someone who “presents an imminent and substantial risk of serious bodily injury or death.” If approved by a judge, the community protection order would require the individual to forfeit any firearms to police. Those guns would have to be returned to the owner within 21 days unless the original petitioners provide “clear and convincing evidence” during a District Court hearing that the forfeiture should be extended for up to 180 days.

Sen. Mark Dion, a Portland Democrat and former Cumberland County sheriff, said he was often frustrated during his decades in law enforcement at the lack of tools available to intervene when officers witnessed people careening toward violence. Disorderly or erratic behavior does not always rise to the level needed to trigger an involuntary commitment to a psychiatric facility even though such behavior raises safety concerns among family members or police, particularly when the person in question has access to a gun.

WAYS TO ‘INTERVENE, DE-ESCALATE’

The “red flag” bill would provide police or family members with ways “to intervene and de-escalate” the situation – even on a temporary basis – before the person acts out violently against himself or others, Dion said. And while no single law will provide protection against the type of shootings seen at a Parkland, Florida, high school, Dion said it could provide another tool to address concerns over mental illness and gun violence.

“Will this law prevent a mass shooting? I don’t know. None of us do,” said Dion, who is one of seven Democrats seeking his party’s nomination for governor. “But if we can see the red flags for what they are, we may have a chance to interrupt and stop what none of us want to see happen.”

Maine already has a law – drafted with the help of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and passed with bipartisan support – that allows police to confiscate the guns of individuals who have been accused of domestic abuse and are subject of a restraining order. But supporters contend Dion’s red flag bill would offer even more protections.

The bill drew support from the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, Attorney General Janet Mills and students who have jumped into the debate over gun violence following the deaths of 17 people at the Florida high school in February. Several people testified that the bill could be particularly effective in lowering incidents of gun-related suicide in Maine, which far outnumber the number of gun-related homicides in the state every year.

Phoebe Walsh, a sophomore at Camden Hills Regional High School, recounted how she struggled with depression and was suicidal during the painful recovery from a skiing accident that nearly killed her two years ago. Walsh told members of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee that she was “a red flag” and that, had she had access to a gun, “I wouldn’t be alive to tell you to pass this bill.”

“Nothing is as final as a gun, but I couldn’t find a gun,” Walsh said. “I am a ski teacher now. I started my own newspaper club and co-founded a teen advocacy group. I learned how to figure-skate with my sister, I sail on the sailing team. My friends and I are here and we are changing the world. But had I pulled the trigger, all I would be is another tally in a gun violence statistic.”

OPPONENTS DECRY infringement

But a large crowd of opponents – many wearing National Rifle Association paraphernalia or labels declaring “Gun rights are civil rights” – decried the bill as infringing on citizens’ rights to bear arms and to due process. Decrying the bill as misguided or feel-good measure, they said the community protection orders are ripe for abuse by angry ex-partners or anyone else with a grudge against a gun owner. Critics also said seizing guns is unlikely to stop mentally ill individuals or would-be domestic abusers intent on causing harm.

“The danger lies in the mind of the individual, not in his or her gun cabinet,” said Todd Tolhurst, president of Gun Owners of Maine. “If something needs to get locked away under the provisions of this bill, it is the subject and not his guns.”

Other critics portrayed the bill as yet another political attack on gun owners and the Second Amendment by liberals and gun control advocates.

“I cannot support this bill because in today’s society, simply being a conservative or possessing a firearm is deemed radical or dangerous by some,” said Rebecca Cummings, an Army veteran and lifetime NRA member from Windham.

ACTION BY OTHER STATES

Roughly a half-dozen states already have enacted such “red flag” laws as a way to remove guns from the homes of people feared to pose a danger to themselves or others. Similar proposals have been introduced or revived in at least two dozen states following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14, according to a recent report by The Wall Street Journal.

Dion introduced a similar measure last year only to see it fail in the Legislature. Following the Parkland shootings, Dion won support from the 10-member Legislative Council to introduce the late-session bill and has six Republican co-sponsors along with three Democrats.

On Tuesday, Ellsworth Police Chief Glenn Moshier said such a law likely would have helped in the ongoing case of a 19-year-old student charged with felony terrorizing for posting threats about a mass shooting at the city’s high school. Moshier said his department was unable, at first, to obtain a search warrant to seize firearms from the home of the man’s mother because she said he did not have access to guns. But when officers subsequently learned the accused teen did, in fact, have access to guns and obtained a search warrant three weeks later, the firearms were no longer there.

UNCERTAINTY OF ACCESS

Moshier said he believes Dion’s bill would have given police the ability to seize those firearms before they disappeared.

“We’re left with a community who is uncertain – and certainly a law enforcement community that is uncertain – that when this individual is released back into public and to home that he won’t have access to those weapons because we have no real knowledge of where those weapons are,” Moshier said.

The Judiciary Committee is expected to debate the bill later this week. It likely faces a difficult haul in the full Legislature, however, given the strong opposition from gun rights advocates.

Instead, David Trahan with the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine recommended lawmakers consider creating a blue-ribbon commission to study the issue through year’s end and recommend solutions to the next Legislature.

“Working a bill like this before the public hearing and with two weeks left in the session when legislators are already stressed is irresponsible and bad public process,” Trahan said.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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