In the months before a gunman shot 18 people to death at a bowling alley and a bar in Lewiston, Maine, his family told authorities that he had been hearing voices and becoming increasingly paranoid as he stockpiled guns, according to reports from the local sheriff’s department. A fellow Army reservist told the Sagadahoc County sheriff’s office he feared Robert Card was about to “snap and commit a mass shooting.”
But authorities never used the state’s so-called yellow flag law, which is meant to remove access to guns for people in mental health crises, to remove guns from his possession.
New scrutiny around the the law and whether it could have stopped last week’s tragedy comes as new information is released by Sagadahoc Sheriff Joel Merry’s office about information it received in the months before the Oct. 25 killings that also injured 13 and triggered a days-long manhunt before the 40-year-old gunman was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot.
According to the state, law enforcement authorities in Maine have used the law 82 times since it took effect in July 2020, largely for people who have threatened suicide.
Many of the summaries for each instance provided by Maine’s Department of Public Safety read like this example from the Brunswick Police Department in 2020: “48-yr-old man, deteriorating mental health, threatening suicide, and threatening friend with a firearm.”
Others speak of delusions. One from the Brewer Police Department in 2021 says, “38-yr-old man, armed with AK-47, believed Stephen King & police are after him, possesses many firearms.”
One entry from the Sanford Police Department in 2022 describes a “38-yr-old woman intercepted by police while attempting to purchase firearm to kill herself, taken into protective custody and blue papered,” referring to the Maine process of involuntarily committing someone in crisis.
The yellow flag law, which is unique to Maine, is the product of legislative compromise in a state led by Democrats but with a deep-rooted gun culture.
Under the law, police must believe an individual is in an acute mental health crisis that makes them a risk to themselves or others, and must take that person into protective custody. Only after an assessment from a mental health provider can law enforcement ask a judge to order a weapons restriction.
Under the broader “red flag” laws in place in more than 20 other states, an individual does not have to be in protective custody, and no medical assessment is required, to ask a judge for a weapons restriction. In some states, family members can go directly to a judge without even involving law enforcement.
Even before last week’s tragedy, there were concerns about the effectiveness of Maine’s yellow flag law. In the first two years the law was in place, it was very rarely employed, as law enforcement struggled to find medical practitioners willing to perform the required evaluations, as the Portland Press Herald reported. The law has been used more frequently in the wake of a telehealth contract with a behavioral health provider in Portland.
The gunman, an Army reservist from Bowdoin, Maine, was sent to a psychiatric facility where he stayed for two weeks after he made veiled threats of violence to fellow reservists. In late summer, he specifically threatened to commit a mass shooting, according to the letter from the Army Reserve.
Despite these concerns, and the Sagadahoc sheriff’s department’s failure to make contact with Card during two wellness checks, the department agreed to allow the gunman’s family to attempt to take away his weapons, rather than having law enforcement officials directly intervene, documents show.
Merry, the sheriff, said in a statement that his office “acted appropriately and followed procedures.”
Emma Platoff of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Read more coverage:
- A gunman killed 18 people and injured 13 others in Lewiston, Maine. Here’s how the following days unfolded.
- Tears and resolve as communities across Maine offer comfort to residents devastated by shootings
- The Maine mass shooting changed Representative Jared Golden’s mind on assault weapons. Will it change his state?
- Profiles of the lives lost in the Maine mass shootings