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Maine authorities could have moved to seize gunman’s firearms before shootings, experts say

The trailer home residence of Lewiston mass murder shooter Robert Card II in Bowdoin, Maine.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

See the Globe’s complete coverage of the Maine shootings.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the nature of Robert R. Card II’s hospitalization at a psychiatric hospital in July. To date, no official has said whether Card’s hospitalization was involuntary. The story has been updated, and the Globe regrets the error.

BOWDOIN, Maine — Local police appeared to have enough information about the Lewiston gunman to take him into custody and begin the process of seizing his guns weeks before he killed 18 and injured a dozen more in shootings last week, according to several legal experts, including a key architect of Maine’s “yellow flag” law.

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When sheriff’s deputies arrived at Robert R. Card II’s trailer on the morning of Sept. 16, they already knew that Card had been described as “ARMED AND DANGEROUS.” Their records also showed that he had been held in a psychiatric facility, that he had made threats against fellow Army Reservists, and that he was suffering from psychotic episodes.

After they knocked, the deputies heard someone moving around inside, but no one answered the door. Unsure of what to do next, they called Card’s commanding officer in the Army Reserve, who said he “thought it best to let Card have time to himself for a bit,” according to the sheriff’s office reports. The deputies backed away. They left it to Card’s brother to keep the weapons out of Card’s hands, and told family members to contact them if Card had further issues.

Six weeks later, Card committed the worst mass shooting in Maine’s history, firing a high-powered rifle in a bar and a bowling alley in nearby Lewiston.

The September morning outside Card’s trailer was an inflection point. An architect of the yellow flag law, which is designed to temporarily remove firearms from those in mental health crisis who pose a risk to themselves or others, said police could have used opportunities like that one to take more aggressive action against Card. And former federal law enforcement officials and gun safety experts say his hospitalization over the summer at a mental health institution could have spurred local police to pursue a warrant to search for and seize Card’s guns, given that federal law generally prohibits those who’ve been committed from possessing or purchasing weapons. The Army, however, said Card’s hospitalization didn’t meet the legal threshold of placing his name in a federal database of prohibited purchasers.

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“This definitely appears like a case that the yellow flag process could have been utilized,” said state Senator Lisa Keim, a Republican who sponsored the 2019 bill in the Maine Legislature.

Pictured on West Road, just before the intersection with Bowdoin Road are police officers who had the turn to Bowdoin Road blocked off. Mass murder suspect Robert Card lived nearby.Jim Davis for The Boston Globe

Keim stopped short of faulting local police for failing to take the gunman into custody, saying she wanted more information from authorities. But, she added, “if the family, the son, and the ex-wife came and said, ‘He’s showing real signs of mental deterioration and mental distress,’ at that point they could have acted on that and taken him into protective custody and had him evaluated.”

Under Maine’s law, to begin pursuing a weapons restriction, law enforcement must take a person into protective custody based on probable cause “that a person may be mentally ill and that due to that condition the person poses a likelihood of serious harm.” To make that determination, law enforcement “may rely upon information provided by a 3rd-party informant if the officer confirms that the informant has reason to believe, based upon the informant’s recent personal observations of or conversations with a person, that the person may be mentally ill and that due to that condition the person poses a likelihood of serious harm.”

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Yellow flag vs. red flag laws
Maine's "yellow flag" law, which is unique in the country, involves far more steps than the "red flag" laws in more than 20 other states used to temporarily seize firearms from an individual who may pose a threat. See how it works.

Family has concerns

Maine

Family presents concern to law enforcement

Law enforcement determines whether there is probable cause to begin process

Law enforcement takes person into protective custody

The individual undergoes a mental health evaluation

Law enforcement seeks a weapons restriction from a judge

Massachusetts

Family seeks weapons restriction from a judge

SOURCE: Globe research

The information from Card’s family and fellow Army Reservists seems to meet that bar, Keim said.

In the wake of the tragedy, Governor Janet Mills has launched an independent commission to probe the shootings, as well as the months leading up to the Oct. 25 rampage when authorities were warned about the gunman’s declining mental health and previous threats to use his weapons to harm others. The commission, Mills said this week, will probe “what more could have been done to prevent this tragedy from occurring.” And the Army Reserve confirmed Thursday that it is conducting “internal administrative investigations” into Card’s death and “the preceding events.”

Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry has defended his office’s handling of the reports about Card, writing in an email to the Globe that his deputies “had no legal authority to enter Mr. Card’s trailer, under our policy, as well as state law.” He added that his office would review its policies for conducting wellness checks “with the goal of making any improvements that are in the interest of public safety while balancing the rights of individuals.”

But legal experts said more could have been done.

Heavily armed police with a canine search the yard homes owned by the father of the suspect on Meadow Road. The suspect was still at large for two mass shooting in Lewiston on Wednesday night.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

By the time sheriff’s deputies arrived at Card’s trailer in mid-September, local police had already received ample warning, according to documents. Card’s son and ex-wife had informed police in May that he was paranoid and hearing voices, and also that he had recently retrieved as many as 15 guns he had stored at his brother’s home. And a September letter from the Army Reserve to the sheriff’s office could not have been more explicit in its expression of concern: Card is “going to snap,” the letter said, relaying the fears of one of his fellow reservists. He is going to “commit a mass shooting,” and “he is a capable marksman and, if he should set his mind to carry out the threats . . . he would be able to do it.”

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The letter from a reservist at the Saco base where Card was stationed also said that Card had been committed to a mental-health facility in New York during the summer after colleagues in the reserves became alarmed by his delusions. The reservists said Card was angry because he believed he was unable to buy guns following the hospitalization.

One of the reservists who’d been the target of Card’s threats was a police officer in Ellsworth, Maine; the police chief there told the Globe he also called Sagadahoc County authorities to inform them of the threats.

All that, experts say, should have given local police the probable cause they needed to take Card into custody and begin the process of restricting his access to guns.

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Even if local authorities had not pursued a yellow flag law gun seizure, there are other steps law enforcement could have taken, according to former federal law enforcement officials.

Given that Card made threats against federal property, the Army Reserve base in Saco, federal authorities could have investigated, said Glenn MacKinlay, who oversaw gun background checks for the US attorney’s office in Massachusetts for 15 years. A spokesperson for the US attorney in Maine said the office did not receive any information about Card until the Oct. 25 shootings.

And if Card was involuntarily committed to a mental hospital in New York this summer, law enforcement could potentially also have pursued a warrant to remove firearms from his possession, legal experts said.

It is unclear whether Card was prohibited by federal law from purchasing or possessing guns, given his hospitalization. Under federal law, people who are involuntarily committed to a mental health institution are generally barred from owning firearms, though there are some exceptions. Card himself seems to have believed the commitment rendered him ineligible to buy guns.

A gun store owner said, in August, his shop refused to give Card a suppressor — a device that silences the sound of gunfire — because he answered “yes” to the question, “Have you ever been adjudicated as a mental defective OR have you ever been committed to a mental institution?”

A spokesman for the Army said Card’s hospitalization over the summer did not meet the legal threshold for inclusion in the federal background check database that would have blocked him from new gun purchases, under the very specific language in federal law, which requires “a formal commitment of a person to a mental institution by a court, board, commission, or other lawful authority.”

“Those thresholds weren’t met,” spokesperson Bryce Dubee told the Globe.

And the FBI said its background check system “was not provided with or in possession of any information that would have prohibited Card from a lawful firearm purchase.”

Still, former federal law enforcement officials said local authorities had options.

MacKinlay said that if he had heard about Card’s hospitalization over the summer and the fact that he was still in possession of his guns, “I would work with local law enforcement or ATF to conduct a search warrant.”

He added, “If federal authorities had been brought into the investigation early on, they could have assisted in lawfully securing these firearms.”

John Hilliard and John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Sean Cotter can be reached at sean.cotter@globe.com. Follow him @cotterreporter. Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her @emmaplatoff. Sarah Ryley can be reached at sarah.ryley@globe.com. Follow her @MissRyley.