In the two decades since two students walked into Columbine High School and killed 13 people, there have been many efforts to restrict access to guns, to arm school personnel and to improve our mental health treatment system. Tragically, there has been little improvement, as last year’s deadly shooting in Parkland, Florida, reminded us.
One fix that states are increasingly turning to is temporary gun seizure under so-called red flag laws. Under these laws, law enforcement and family members can petition a court to require an individual who poses a threat to do harm to others or themselves to temporarily surrender their firearms.
Colorado became the 15th state to enact such a law when Gov. Jared Polis signed a red flag measure into law in April. Nevada lawmakers passed a similar bill last month and the governor is expected to sign it.
Maine should join these states.
This is not a new concept in Maine. State lawmakers passed a red flag bill last year but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Paul LePage and his veto was upheld by House Republicans. That bill was supported by the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, the Maine Psychological Association, Maine Children’s Alliance, Maine Education Association and other groups.
A similar bill has been introduced this year. It would allow a family member or law enforcement officer to request an extreme protection order to have guns temporarily moved from someone whom a judge deemed posed a risk to themselves or others. It met stiff opposition from gun-rights groups and others, in part because the process for removing guns was flawed and relied on a hearing without the presence of the person whose guns could be taken away.
The governor’s office stepped in to negotiate a compromise. Members of the office met with representatives of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, Maine Medical Association, Maine Criminal Justice Academy, Maine Prosecutors Association and others, along with groups such as Everytown for Gun Safety advocating for stricter gun laws and groups such as the NRA that oppose them.
Those conversations resulted in a bill that has the support of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and the Gun Owners of Maine, and was presented to lawmakers last month. It ties a gun seizure to the state’s existing protective custody laws under which someone can be admitted involuntarily to a psychiatric facility if a medical professional deems it necessary to protect the person from imminent self-harm or substantial harm to others.
Under the proposed legislation, this standard and assessment could be extended to others whom a law enforcement officer, in undertaking a welfare check, considers to pose a substantial threat to themselves or others. The bill requires that a medical practitioner evaluate the history, recent actions and behaviors of a person taken into protective custody and determine whether there is a reasonable likelihood that the person’s mental health will deteriorate and whether the person will in the foreseeable future pose a likelihood of serious harm and whether such potential harm is exacerbated by the person’s immediate access to a firearm or other dangerous weapon. If a medical practitioner certifies there is such “a substantial risk of physical harm” to themselves or others, the person is required to surrender any dangerous weapons to a law enforcement officer with a judicial review hearing to be held within 14 days.
We share concerns that these measures may further stigmatize Mainers with mental health disorders. We are also concerned that the support of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and the gun owners appears contingent upon other guns safety bills not being passed by the Legislature. All but one of those bills have already been rejected by lawmakers this year.
But we believe this legislation is an important, if small, step forward in addressing gun violence. It should be passed by lawmakers.
Research conducted by Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates for stricter gun control laws, found that perpetrators of mass shootings typically exhibit warning signs — either through criminal behavior or threats — before their murderous rampages. Red flag laws are meant to spark protective action when those warning signs are spotted.
Red flag laws can also help reduce suicides, the most common form of gun violence. In the U.S., nearly two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides. However, in Maine, nearly 90 percent of all firearm deaths from 2013 to 2017 were the result of suicide.
Studies have found that red flag laws have reduced suicide rates in Connecticut, the first state to enact such a law, and Indiana.
Giving families and law enforcement officers a tool to avert these tragedies is one of the biggest benefits of a red flag law.