I woke up on a recent Saturday to a radio news story about the impact of the Columbine High School shooting focused on the survivors. April 20 was the 20th anniversary of that shooting.
The story included a conversation between a survivor and her 13-year-old daughter. The survivor had been reluctant to tell her child about the experience, but finally did. A few days later, as they arrived at the girl’s school, she asked, “That’s not going to happen to me, is it?”
The Maine Legislature is currently considering a bill to help prevent gun violence. LD 1312, “An Act Regarding Access to Firearms by Extremely Dangerous and Suicidal Individuals,” is sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Millett of Cape Elizabeth. It would allow a family member or law enforcement official to file a petition for a temporary “extreme risk protection order” against a person who poses a clear and immediate danger to themselves or others. Laws like this one, so- called “red flag” laws, are working around the country to make communities safer.
If a judge grants the petition, a person found to be in crisis would have to temporarily surrender firearms to a law enforcement agency. That person would retain legal ownership of their firearms, and would have their firearms returned to them once they are out of danger.
As we consider whether to enact a red flag bill in Maine, it is important to remember that every shooting death impacts not just the victim’s family and friends, but also our neighbors and communities. Red flag laws cannot prevent all gun deaths, but they offer a critical pathway to help protect Mainers.
Opponents of this bill argue that it would limit their 2nd Amendment rights. But just as a citizen can’t shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater, the right of a dangerous or suicidal person to keep firearms can be temporarily suspended to save lives. In both cases, the necessity of keeping a community safe takes precedent.
The Supreme Court made clear in the 2008 ruling of District of Columbia vs. Heller that the 2nd Amendment protects a citizen’s individual right to possess firearms for purposes such as self-defense. The renowned conservative Justice Antonin Scalia stated that the right to bear arms may be limited. He wrote:
“Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”
Scalia understood that the 2nd Amendment, like all constitutional rights, must have sensible limits.
In some cases, such as the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, the shooter showed prior clear signs that he posed an immediate and real danger. “I’m going to be a professional school shooter,” he posted on YouTube just months before the tragedy.
Could a Florida red flag law have saved those lives? A strong case can be made that it could have.
Authorities in Maryland granted more than 300 petitions to temporarily disarm individuals in the three months after that state’s red flag law went into effect. The Montgomery County Sheriff reported that these cases included four “significant” threats of school shootings, and that a majority of the people who were subjects of the orders were suffering from mental health crises.
There is strong evidence that red flag laws save lives. Enacting the law in Maine would help our law enforcement community prevent a school shooting. It would help a family member intervene to prevent the loss of a loved one in the depths of mental illness.
For those of us who have lost a loved one or friend in a way that might have been prevented, we wish that we could go back, and take action that would have safeguarded that person. This law offers a tool to help us protect our families and our communities.
Brownie Carson of Harpswell represents District 24 in the Maine Senate.