Could A Red Flag Law Have Prevented The Maine Shootings?
Robert Card gave law enforcement every indication he was at risk of committing a mass shooting. New details raise questions about why Maine's yellow flag law failed, and if a red flag law was needed.
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As more details emerge about Robert Card, it’s become increasingly clear that Maine’s “yellow flag” law failed, but a “red flag” law might have been more effective in restricting the shooter’s access to guns in Maine.
Last week, Robert Card killed 18 people and injured 13 in Lewiston, Maine. It was the deadliest mass shooting in Maine’s history. He was found dead two days later in a cargo trailer. His motive is still unclear, but the details gleaned from his social media activity, neighbors, and family indicate he held paranoid views and was active in a right-wing militia.
Robert Card was committed to a mental health facility for two weeks this past Summer after he said he was hearing voices and threatened to shoot up a military base. Card was a US Army Reservist.
Now, we’re getting more details about his mental health struggles, the alarms that were rung by people who knew him, and the multiple failed welfare checks by law enforcement. It seems a lot of people dropped the ball. Why wasn’t Maine’s yellow flag law triggered? Does Maine need a red flag law?
Let’s dive in.
Robert Card Was A Walking Red Flag
Today, CNN reported that the US Army asked local police to do a welfare check on Robert Card after a soldier became “concerned that [the reservist] is going to snap and commit a mass shooting” at the Army Reserve Center in Saco, Maine. The officers attempted the welfare check but were unsuccessful in contacting him. This was six weeks before the shooting and after he was already committed to the mental health facility in July - which officers were also aware of.
It was this September incident that triggered Sheriff Joel Merry of Sagadahoc County to send an alert to all law enforcement agencies in Maine about the threatened mass shooting targeting the Saco facility, according to The New York Times. Sheriff Merry sent a deputy to Card’s home in an attempt to find Card but could not. Then, he sent out the statewide alert.
According to the CNN story, there were multiple incidents that led to the Army triggering welfare checks on Card in recent months. Local police never directly made contact with Card after his violent threat. But they did make contact with Card’s brother.
On September 16, in response to the threat against the military base, officers were deployed to Card’s home. Card refused to answer the door. The unit commander reportedly told another officer that Card didn’t have any more military-issued weapons, and he felt it was best that Card be given time alone. On September 17, police reportedly heard from Card’s brother, who warned that if Card did answer the door, he’d likely be armed. Card’s brother promised that he and his father would secure Card’s weapons.
There was no apparent follow-up or police contact with Card after this, from what I can see from all available reporting. According to that same CNN report, a missing person’s report was opened and closed, but there appears to be no indication that a yellow flag process was initiated:
A File 6 missing person’s report appears to have been generated by the Sagadahoc sergeant who tried to check on the man, the source told CNN, but it is unclear if there was any action in regard to the shooter’s access to weapons. The source said the case appeared to have been closed on October 1, 24 days before the massacres.
38 days after Card’s brother reportedly told police they would secure his weapons, Card went on his rampage in Lewiston.
The New York Times reported that Robert Card legally purchased guns several days before the attack.
Now, how could someone who raised so many flags have been able to maintain access to an arsenal of guns, let alone purchase more?
Was A Red Flag Law Needed?
The Maine Gun Safety Coalition blamed “weak gun laws” for the attack and called for action: “At a minimum, the Maine Gun Safety Coalition believes an assault weapons ban is necessary to try to prevent more such tragedies in our state.”
Maine law, as it stands currently, does not ban assault weapons. It does not require universal background checks for all gun sales. Maine allows permitless carry and doesn’t ban high-capacity magazines.
While an assault weapons ban would’ve definitely restricted Card’s access to this military-grade weaponry, another less controversial law could’ve also empowered people to take action and restrict Card’s access to guns: a red flag law.
Red flag laws, also known as extreme risk laws, temporarily restrict the ability of someone in crisis from possessing and purchasing firearms. These laws empower family members, law enforcement, employers, co-workers, teachers, or others close to someone to petition the court directly to restrict the individual from having access to firearms. Law enforcement could then temporarily confiscate weapons from this individual and flag them so gun sellers won’t sell firearms to them.
If someone is making violent threats, has a history of violence, or is going through a personal crisis that causes erratic behavior, this order can be sought directly from the court. Multiple case studies show that these red flag laws have worked to prevent multiple mass shootings. 21 states and the District of Columbia have a form of red flag law.
Maine does not have a red flag law, but they do have a watered-down yellow flag law. In fact, they’re the only state that has one. This law was implemented in 2019 as a compromise after Maine lawmakers rejected a red flag law in favor of a more lengthy process. The differences between these two laws are important.
The yellow flag law adds additional procedural hurdles to the simpler process of red flag laws. A family member would have to reach out to law enforcement to begin the process rather than petition a court directly. Law enforcement has to be the one to trigger the process after they have the individual in custody and have sought a medical examination.
After going into police custody, the medical examiner would have to deem them a threat officially, and a judge would have to rule on whether they’d lose access to weapons.
Gun safety advocates have slammed Maine’s yellow flag law as “woefully weak.” A red flag law would’ve allowed any of the seemingly numerous people who believed Robert Card was a threat to petition the court directly to begin this process. There would’ve been no need for initial police contact, protective custody, or a medical examination.
Instead, those concerned about Card had to reach out to the police, who performed failed wellness checks and didn’t appear to begin the process of triggering the yellow flag law as it stands.
I know what you’re thinking. If the yellow flag law allows police to trigger the process, why didn’t they do so amid all the warnings? That’s a good question.
Why wasn’t it triggered? Perhaps law enforcement would’ve taken Card into protective custody if they made contact with him during those wellness checks and then began the yellow flag process. Perhaps they were assuaged by the promise from Card’s brother about limiting his access to guns. Perhaps it was simply incompetence. I don’t know, but I do know the yellow flag law was clearly not enough, and the police clearly didn’t do enough follow-through on this violent lead.
While a yellow flag law relies on law enforcement to trigger the process, protective custody, and a medical examination, a red flag law could’ve empowered more people to petition the court directly and restrict Robert Card’s access to his arsenal of weapons. Also, the police could’ve petitioned without having him in custody or seeking a medical examination.
Laws aren’t effective unless they’re implemented with competence and vigilance. That didn’t happen with Maine’s yellow flag law, so it’s clear the law needs to be expanded and enforced properly.