October 20, 2019
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Maine ‘red flag’ bill compromise would peg gun seizures to mental health

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Sen. Rebecca Millett.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Democratic-led Maine Legislature is proceeding cautiously on the issue of gun control in 2019, with a bipartisan compromise on a divisive “red flag” proposal looming after a legislative committee voted against several gun control bills on Friday.

The possible bargain around a bill from Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, is reminiscent of a bill negotiated by Gov. Janet Mills as attorney general in 2018 that was vetoed by then-Gov. Paul LePage and highlights a reticence in Augusta to renew old and schismatic fights on guns.

Mainers voted down a 2016 referendum that would have mandated background checks before private gun sales, and guns were a top issue Mills faced in her 2018 Democratic primary, when she was hit from the left on past A+ ratings from the National Rifle Association.

Mills won the election and Democrats oriented toward gun control took both chambers of the Legislature. But just after she took office in January, Mills largely kiboshed new gun control proposals by telling reporters that “ the people have already spoken on background checks.”

Millett’s bill was a top priority on the subject in 2019, looking to have Maine join 14 states with so-called red flag bills that allow courts to order a person deemed dangerous to temporarily surrender guns. They have been a popular response to the 2018 school shooting that killed 17 in Parkland, Florida, and are aimed at stopping mass shootings and suicides.

However, the original version of Millett’s bill rankled gun-rights advocates, in part, by including a provision requiring a search warrant be issued after a red flag order if there is probable cause to believe the person subject to the order has a gun.

It was opposed by the NRA and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine at a crowded legislative hearing in April dominated by gun-rights advocates, but private negotiations around the proposal have been ongoing since then involving the sportsmen’s alliance, Mills’ administration and other advocates.

Someone familiar with negotiations said on condition of anonymity that a drafted compromise would allow police to take guns from people in a format similar to existing “blue-paper” laws. Under that process, someone can be admitted involuntarily to a psychiatric hospital if a medical professional deems that person to have a mental illness that could cause harm.

A court hearing is required within 14 days to review those requests, and there would be a similar process under the pending deal. Sen. Michael Carpenter, D-Houlton, who is working on the deal, and David Trahan, the executive director of the alliance, wouldn’t discuss details of the compromise, though Carpenter said it was “a bipartisan effort.” Spokespeople for Mills didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The new version is expected to appear in a bill as soon as next week. Because the bill will apply to people found to have mental illnesses, it is reduced in scope from Millett’s bill and the process used will be different from the one in a Mills-backed compromise LePage vetoed in 2018.

It is nearing public view after the Legislature’s criminal justice committee voted unanimously Friday to spike six gun control bills, including a proposal to ban magazines holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Mills signed a bill into law Thursday that would study school safety.

The deal may head off fights about gun control for now, but they have already given fodder to Republicans who have rallied against the proposals. Meanwhile, there is still an appetite among many progressive Democrats for stricter gun control.

Rep. Victoria Morales, D-South Portland, told the committee on Friday that she was terrified after seeing a man run into her kids’ school with a hand in his pocket shortly after the 2012 shooting that killed 20 children and six staff members in Newtown, Connecticut.

“I just put that out there because I want you to know how fearful parents are, how fearful grandparents are, how fearful our kids are,” she said.

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