Ben Strick, director of adult behavioral health at Portland nonprofit Spurwink, and Sam Reny, a psychiatric nurse practitioner with the center, work with Maine to implement so-called yellow flag orders and temporarily confiscate weapons from people in crisis. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

A Maine law allowing police to temporarily confiscate weapons from people who are a threat to themselves or others has been in place for three years, but according to state data, it wasn’t really put to use until recently.

As of May 30, law enforcement agencies had obtained 58 court orders to seize dangerous weapons, particularly guns, from people in protective custody under the state’s so-called yellow flag law. After some initial criticism that the law wasn’t being used enough, the number of orders doubled in the last year, with at least 30 issued since June 2022.

Among those cases:

• A 53-year-old man who had fired a gun over his girlfriend’s head and threatened suicide.
• A 70-year-old woman with deteriorating mental health conditions who had shot at anyone approaching her house.
• A 32-year-old combat veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder who threatened Veterans Affairs staff.
• A 38-year-old man who owned an AK-47 and believed the police and author Stephen King were after him.

Gov. Janet Mills signed the provision into law in 2019. Unlike red flag laws that exist in 21 states and Washington, D.C., Maine’s requires a medical opinion in addition to a court order based on sworn testimony from a police officer, family member or others concerned that someone poses an immediate threat and should not have access to firearms.

Red flag laws have been promoted as a powerful tool to stop gun violence before it happens, particularly in the wake of mass shootings, though an Associated Press analysis last year found many states barely use them. Minnesota and Michigan, where in February a gunman killed three people at Michigan State University, both passed versions this year.


Maine’s Deadly Force Review Panel has said using yellow flags more could lead to fewer police shootings. There have been 34 deadly police shootings in Maine since 2015, according to a data set maintained by the Washington Post.

All police shootings in the state have been ruled justified by the attorney general’s office. But that review process does not ask why those shootings occurred or what forces aligned to bring a person into a deadly conflict with police.

Public safety leaders say the new uptick in yellow flag orders in Maine is thanks to a telehealth contract with Spurwink, a Portland nonprofit behavioral health provider and crisis center, which has helped streamline how quickly law enforcement officers can check that medical opinion box.

Until October when the contract was signed, police had to consult medical practitioners in person, which they say was often difficult.

Now, police can call Spurwink on a 24/7 hotline, where they’re connected to a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner. Maine law enforcement agencies said Spurwink’s involvement makes it easier to use the law as a tool to avoid gun-related tragedies.

“I think we do see this being a resource we’re more apt to consider,” said Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office Detective Patrick Ferriter, who has helped obtain two weapons restriction orders in the last year.


Before the law took effect in July 2020, Ferriter said law enforcement agencies didn’t have the outright ability to take someone’s weapons during a mental health crisis. Sometimes they could get loved ones to file for protection from abuse orders, which might trigger a person’s firearms to be seized. Other times, they had to rely on the promises of family members or the person in crisis themselves.

“It certainly gives law enforcement a much more reasonable opportunity that they can have more confidence that they’ve done something,” Ferriter said.


Maine’s yellow flag law was passed with bipartisan support, largely thanks to the medical sign-off requirement. Stronger red flag proposals would have given officers the ability to more easily confiscate weapons based only on the concern of family, friends and community members. They failed after public opposition from the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and the National Rifle Association – both of which argued that the bill violated gun owners’ constitutional rights by allowing gun seizures without due process.

The nearly 60 people who have temporarily lost access to weapons are in the “deep end of the pool,” Maine Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck said in an interview last week.

“There was conversation that this law would be utilized all the time, frequently, that it may be used inappropriately to take people’s firearms away from them,” said Sauschuck. “These are people that are in the midst of a life-altering crisis. And that crisis can go a bunch of different ways. If they’re left to their own crisis and their own volition, somebody’s going to get hurt.”


To issue a yellow flag order, a person is taken into protective custody by police and brought to a hospital. Officers fill out a statement arguing that they’ve determined a person is a danger to themselves or others and how they know the person has access to a weapon.

That all gets evaluated and sent to a judge, who makes the official order that an officer must serve within 24 hours. Within 14 days, there’s a hearing to determine if the order will stay in place.

Anyone under a restriction cannot possess or buy any weapons and faces arrest if they do. They’re also put on a registry that’s sent out to licensed gun dealers. If they didn’t give their weapons to a family member for safekeeping, police will seize them until the order is lifted.

Some departments struggle with the time it takes to complete a request for a weapons restriction order, usually several hours, at a time when law enforcement agencies are already struggling with low staffing.

“Administratively, it’s hard for law enforcement,” said Sanford Police Officer Colleen Adams. She noted Sanford’s department has a team dedicated to mental health calls – an asset smaller departments don’t have.

“At face value, it makes sense. But when it gets down to the meat and potatoes of the process, it’s pretty in depth. And there’s just a lot of steps,” Adams added. “I think down the road, you’re going to see more of these as agencies and officers get comfortable with it.”


Some say the process takes longer because of the checks and balances.

“It does take some time, but it should take some time,” said Lincoln County Deputy Sheriff Rand Maker, whose office has obtained five orders since July 2020. Maker and other law enforcement agencies said their calls for protective custody outpace these orders and not everyone has access to a firearm. “We don’t use this tool in every incident.”


Ben Strick, director of adult behavioral health at Spurwink, said the yellow flag law buys a person in crisis more time to seek mental health services or other interventions.

“It creates distance between the event, or the potential deadly event, and access to a weapon,” Strick said. “It gives you the ability to respond. I think in many of these situations, these are not folks who … they’re people who are struggling, who are suffering. It gives you enough of a break, hopefully, to get the services and supports and resources in place so you don’t do something that you’d regret.”

Adams, the Sanford officer, said she thinks having a weapons order can spur more serious mental health treatment.


“There’s a little bit more seriousness to it if we’re saying, ‘Yes, this person is in protective custody because they want to harm themselves or others, but we’re also doing a weapons restriction order,’ ” she said.

The law could also change how police address mental health issues on the job. Farmington Police Chief Kenneth Charles said he hopes more officers will review state data, including summaries of when weapons restriction orders are used. Maybe they’ll recognize more instances where an order is necessary, he said.

“It helps officers recognize underlying mental health issues,” Charles said. “It’s not just a one-time instance that merits someone’s firearms being seized.”

But the law itself doesn’t guarantee any form of intervention to address someone in crisis.

“It seems pretty self-evident there is a looming mental health crisis in this state that’s not being handled appropriately,” said Ferriter, the Cumberland County Sheriff’s detective.

He said law enforcement agencies are being dealt a “lion’s share” of this work, but none of it is a permanent solution.

Hopefully, the system overall – the courts, mental health service providers, policymakers – take the time to increase access to services that law enforcement isn’t equipped to offer, Ferriter said.

“What are we doing to approach the greater mental health needs?” Ferriter said. “What are we doing after these orders?”

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 7:30 a.m. Monday, June 12, 2023 to indicate that police are connected to a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner when they contact Spurwink.

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