October 15, 2019
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Maine Legislature backs bill that ties gun seizures to mental health after nixing ‘red flag’ bill

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
A gun rights advocate stands in the Hall of Flags at the state house in Augusta on Friday.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Legislature endorsed on Wednesday an alternative to a so-called “red flag” bill that was negotiated by Gov. Janet Mills, lawmakers and gun-rights groups, and would peg gun seizures to mental health diagnoses.

It’s a bittersweet step for gun-control activists who were hoping to see parts of their agenda adopted at the State House in 2019 under Democratic majorities in the Legislature but were thwarted largely by a Democratic governor wary of prioritizing it.

The measure emerged in May as an alternative to a red flag bill that was a top priority of Democrats, including House Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport. But it quickly drew the ire of the gun-rights Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and the National Rifle Association.

Those groups tacitly supported a compromise on the subject negotiated in part by Mills in 2018, when she was attorney general, but they generally oppose red flag laws, which let family members petition courts to order someone deemed dangerous to temporarily surrender guns.

Such policies have been adopted by 15 states and the District of Columbia, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control group, and they have been a popular policy response to the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. A study last year linked them to suicide rate decreases in two states, but gun-rights groups call them an affront to due process.

The alternative instead changes protective custody laws to allow medical professionals to determine if a person with a mental health condition has a weapon that increases the risk of harm to themselves or others.

It passed the Senate in a 32-0 vote on Tuesday before the House of Representatives in a 135-9 vote. Five Republicans and four Democrats voted against it in the lower chamber. The measure went to Mills’ desk for approval early Thursday before the Legislature adjourned for 2019.

If that determination is made, the person would surrender weapons until a hearing held within 14 days where a judge could extend the terms for a year. The person would get weapons back when a judge deems them to no longer present a major threat.

“I believe with all my heart this bill will save lives,” said Sen. Mike Carpenter, D-Houlton, who helped negotiations around the measure.

On Tuesday, the Maine Senate rejected the red flag bill in an initial 20-15 vote, putting it on track to die though both bills face further action in both chambers. Negotiations around the measure were led by the sportsman’s alliance and Mills’ office.

Soon after Mills took office in January, she set low expectations for gun control supporters by telling reporters “ the people have already spoken on background checks” after measures similar to a defeated 2016 referendum on that issue were introduced by members of her party despite her support for many gun control policies during the 2018 Democratic primary campaign.

The Maine Gun Safety Coalition, a gun-control group, also backed the compromise measure, saying in legislative testimony that it would be “a dramatic step forward for gun safety,” but it was “no substitute” for a red flag law.

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