From the day they dubbed it Maine’s “yellow flag law,” they had the wrong color.

It was June of 2019 and, as the 129th Legislature headed home for the summer, there was applause and backslapping all over the State House. Maine finally had a law designed to keep guns out of the hands of people caught in a mental health crisis and, to hear the politicians on both sides of the aisle tell it, this was government functioning at its absolute best.

Or so we thought.

In less than an hour on Oct. 25, Maine’s yellow security blanket flew off amid a fusillade of bullets fired by Robert Card, 40, of Bowdoin – precisely the type of person the law was supposed to thwart. Before taking his own life, Card killed 18 Mainers, wounded 13 others and forever scarred Maine history.

The days since have been punctuated by a growing litany of things that went wrong – dire warnings from Card’s family and fellow Army reservists that he was armed and coming unhinged, efforts by police to locate him that fizzled, informal promises by those close to him that they’d secure his guns. Under the law, that last task is supposed to fall to police.

What didn’t happen?


No direct police contact with Card, as envisioned by the law. No involvement by a Maine mental health professional, as envisioned by the law. No oversight by a judge, as envisioned by the law.

There may as well have been no law.

How and why it all unfolded that way will be the work of an independent commission now being created by Gov. Janet Mills and Attorney General Aaron Frey. As Mills noted last week, “This – the complete facts and circumstances, including any failures – must be brought to light and known by all. The families of the victims, those who were injured, those who are recovering, and the people of Maine and the nation deserve nothing less.”

She might have added: No more yellow.

I don’t know who came up with the phrase “yellow flag law” – a wink-wink play off the more restrictive “red flag” laws in other states. But in retrospect, given that we were talking about people in mental-health crisis with guns, that catchy title presaged a serious flaw.

What does “red flag” connote? Imminent harm. Danger. The need to stop something – or someone – immediately before things spiral out of control.


“And yellow flag?” Caution. Careful deliberation. The need to respect the almighty 2nd Amendment.

What’s loud and clear in the former and sorely lacking in the latter? Urgency.

Four years ago, with a newly installed Democratic governor eager to repair years of frayed relations between the executive and legislative branches, the talk was all about bridging the political divide and finding common ground.

David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and a pivotal negotiator for the gun rights crowd, penned an op-ed for this newspaper weeks after the yellow flag measure passed. He devoted much of his essay to Maine’s scarcity of mental health services, the ins and outs of protective custody, and how an “apparently disturbed person,” once separated from their guns by a police/mental health professional/judge triumvirate, can then go about getting them back.

“The law is now being looked at nationally as a much better alternative to the more divisive ‘red flag’ bills pushed by gun control organizations,” Trahan wrote at the time. “More importantly, Maine has new, broad protections for mental health patients and the public while preserving individual liberties.”

Ah, those ever-present individual liberties. As President Biden noted during his visit to Lewiston on Friday, what about the individual liberty to go out for an evening of bowling without fear of being shot in the back? How about the right to enjoy a bloodshed-free cornhole match at your local watering hole? Why do certain individual liberties start every debate, while the rest, time after time, are relegated to collateral damage?


Later in 2019, Gov. Mills posted on her website a long list of her administration’s first-year accomplishments. There were 52 in all, grouped into eight broad categories, such as growing the economy, expanding health care and supporting Maine seniors.

The yellow flag law appeared second to last under the heading “Restoring Normalcy and Bipartisan Compromise in State Government.” Its placement speaks volumes about what drove the effort – not the need to get guns away from potential mass murderers as quickly and efficiently as possible, but rather the bipartisan prerequisite that everyone feel comfortable with the new statute.

So, who’s comfortable now? Adding a snap mental health evaluation to the criteria for gun seizures may have hastened the yellow flag law’s passage, but in the real world it only serves to slow the process down when hours, even minutes, can spell the difference between lives saved and lives snuffed out.

We can only hope that as Maine now takes another run at this scourge of gun violence, we’ll focus less on protecting the rights of the guy with the assault-style weapon and more – way more – on saving the lives of the innocent people in his crosshairs. If the governor’s independent commission really wants to have an impact, it might start by resolving to put the faces of Card’s victims, now painfully familiar to all of us, on the cover of its final report.

We still have much to learn about how and why Robert Card managed to hang onto his guns and avoid contact with law enforcement – even as he repeatedly shed warning signs like sparks from a downed wire.

But this we do know: The man should have been separated from his weaponry months before he started shooting. And Maine’s yellow flag law, for all its “bipartisan compromise,” failed to stop him.

Fellow Mainers, we must do better.

We owe it to those we lost.

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