Three law enforcement officers with rifles stand in the back of a pickup truck and watch over the fields of the Card family farm in Bowdoin on Thursday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Robert Card fell through more than one crack in the mental health system before killing 18 people and injuring 13 others in Lewiston last week.

And now the deadliest mass shooting in state history is once again focusing debate on how to get guns out of the hands of people experiencing mental health crises.

Experts say that mental health problems alone are rarely the cause for mass violence. But they also point to so-called red flag laws, a measure Maine has rejected, as an effective tool that many states use to restrict access to guns when a person in crisis is threatening to harm themselves or others.

“If someone is acting violently – making threats, stalking people, arming themselves – let’s get the guns out of their hands first, because firearms are the most lethal means of violence,” said Joshua Horwitz, co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions. “We have helped design these red flag laws – these extreme risk protection orders – to do just that. ”

But, even with statewide red flag laws in place, there can still be gaps, including when someone who is considered a threat moves from one state to another.

Red flag laws allow a family member, friend or police officer to seek an order to take away someone’s guns, at least temporarily. Maine considered such a law in 2019 but rejected it, instead adopting a compromise version known as a yellow flag law.


The Maine version places additional limits on the ability of authorities to take away someone’s weapons, including requiring a medical professional’s recommendation.

Supporters of the Maine law say it provides more due process for the gun owner. Critics say the burdensome requirements make the law harder to use when moving quickly is critical.

There are 21 states with red flag laws. Maine is the only state to adopt a yellow flag law.

People suffering from mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violent crime than perpetrators, experts say. And those who exhibit other risk factors, such as threatening behavior or substance use, are more of a threat to themselves than others, they say.

“At a basic level, most violence is not due to mental illness or people with mental illness and that includes even these tragic events that recently happened up in Maine,” said Dr. Jack Rozel, a psychiatry professor and adjunct professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh. “In and of itself as a risk factor for violence, mental illness isn’t useful.”

But getting guns out of reach is critical when someone is potentially suicidal or when a person in crisis is actively making threats against others, experts say.



Questions of weapon access quickly emerged after officials confirmed that the suspect in the Lewiston shootings, Robert Card, a 40-year-old Army reservist, was treated for two weeks at a military hospital in New York this summer because commanders were concerned about his erratic behavior during a training mission. He heard voices and threatened to shoot up a National Guard base in Saco, they said. He had been experiencing a mental health crisis for the last year, according to a family member.

New York is one of 21 states that has a red flag law, which would allow law enforcement to restrict Card’s access to weapons while he was being treated. But it’s unclear whether that law was invoked while Card was in New York, or whether the military has its own policy on restricting firearms during a mental health crisis.

Deputy Attorney General Christopher Taub said that Maine’s yellow flag law can be used when a resident experiences a mental health crisis and makes threats while out-of-state.

“The fact that the crisis was not in Maine would not preclude use of Maine’s yellow flag law, but a law enforcement officer would still need to follow the procedure set forth in the law,” Taub said.

While the federal government provides funding and support for states that adopt red flag laws, there is no federal law restricting gun access in cases of mental health crises or threatening behavior. It’s up to each state to impose and enforce their own restrictions and to decide what information to share with other states.


It’s unclear what information military officials shared with Maine officials about Card’s threatening behavior. A spokesman for the U.S. Army did not respond to questions about the military’s policy, or what information was shared between the bases in New York and Saco.

A spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said he and his national security team are looking into the matter.

Two police chiefs in Maine told The Associated Press that a statewide awareness alert was sent in mid-September to be on the lookout for Card after authorities here were notified of “veiled threats” made in New York. In response to the alert, police visited Card’s home to check on his welfare, but he wasn’t there, one chief told the AP.

Maine state records reveal that Card did not trigger any attempt to take away his weapons under the state’s yellow flag law.

Even if state authorities had been given detailed information about his mental health crisis in New York, the state’s yellow flag law requires a person to be in protective custody in Maine and experiencing a mental health crisis for a police agency to begin the process. Police would then need to get a medical assessment and provider’s opinion that he was at risk of causing foreseeable harm to himself or others before seeking an order to restrict gun access.

“That’s an extra and complicated step,” Horwitz said.


If Maine had a more typical red flag law, police or family members could have petitioned a court for weapons restrictions without seeking a medical assessment or having Card placed in protective custody. A family member has said relatives were concerned about his declining mental health, but it’s unknown whether they would have sought an order.

Under some red flag laws, restriction orders can show up in a state or national background check for gun purchases.


The FBI said Saturday that Card had not been on its radar, the Associated Press reported. The agency told the AP there was no information in its national background check system that would have prevented him from purchasing a weapon legally.

It’s not clear if action taken under Maine’s yellow flag is shared with the FBI. Maine Department of Public Safety spokesperson Shannon Moss said she would not answer questions about whether temporary weapons restrictions under Maine’s law are uploaded to either the state or national database for background checks, or both.

“We appreciate these questions, and we will answer them, but given the current circumstances it’s not going to be right now,” Moss said before the manhunt for the suspect ended Friday when police found Card dead from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound.


Maine considered a red flag law in 2019. Gov. Janet Mills helped negotiate a compromise bill with the Sportsmen’s Alliance of Maine, a powerful gun rights lobbying group representing gun owners. The result was the current yellow flag law.

Spokespeople for Mills  did not directly respond to questions last week about whether the governor has changed her position on gun control legislation in the wake of the mass shootings.

Once the immediate public threat is resolved and all of the facts are known, spokesperson Ben Goodman said, the governor “believes the people of Maine deserve a robust discussion about public safety at the state and federal levels in the coming weeks.”

House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, added her voice Friday to increasing calls for stiffer gun laws in Maine.

“While nothing we do in the state Legislature can erase this tragedy, we must find a path forward to honor the lives lost and prevent this type of devastation from happening again,” Talbot Ross said in a statement. “As Speaker of the Maine House, I urge all of my colleagues to look with new eyes on Maine’s lax gun laws. We can and we must have a serious conversation about needed policy reforms to address the disturbing violence that occurs with unregulated dangerous weapons.”

Ben Strick, the vice president of behavioral health at Spurwink Services, a nonprofit counseling agency that conducts remote assessments, said the yellow flag law is working in some cases and its use has improved. Strick said 54 of the 81 cases when the law was used to restrict gun access have come in the last year.


“Each of these is really avoiding a suicide, a homicide, or a deadly force incident,” Strick said. “At the same time, this is an important time to look at the law and ask if we’re making full use of it.”


Maine and New Hampshire are the only New England states without a red flag law. Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey and Connecticut are among the states that have adopted one.

Rozel, the professor, recommends Maine adopt a red flag law, as well as waiting periods and universal background checks for purchases and laws that require safe storage of firearms, especially in homes with children.

But he also cautions that tougher laws are no panacea. Even when weapons are ordered held under a red flag law, there’s no guarantee that law enforcement will follow up, or that the individual has relinquished all of their weapons.

He said it’s difficult to find the balance between one’s right to bear arms and protecting public safety.

“It’s complicated to say the least,” Rozel said. “If this was easy enough to explain in a soundbite, we wouldn’t still be doing this year after year and tragedy after tragedy.”

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.