Local police appeared to have enough information about the Lewiston gunman to take him into custody and pursue a weapons restriction weeks before he killed 18 and injured at least a dozen in a pair of shootings last week, according to a key architect of Maine’s “yellow flag” law, which is designed to temporarily seize firearms from those in mental health crisis who pose a risk to themselves or others.+
“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. “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.”
But Keim stopped short of faulting law enforcement for failing to take the gunman into custody and take his weapons, saying she wanted more information from authorities.
“That’s a judgment call that I feel like it would be unhelpful for me to make, without sitting down and having all the information in front of me,” she said Wednesday in an interview with the Globe.
Maine’s yellow flag law, which is unique in the nation, has come under intense scrutiny in the week since Robert R. Card II opened fire at a Lewiston bowling alley and then a bar. Passed in 2019, the law is designed to allow local police to temporarily take weapons from people who are in mental health crises and may pose a risk. It is narrower and requires more steps than the “red flag” laws in more than 20 other states, because it requires that an individual be taken into protective custody and evaluated by a mental health professional before police can seek a weapons restriction from a judge. Elsewhere, family members can go directly to a judge to ask for weapons restrictions.
In the wake of the tragedy, some have called for Maine to adopt a stronger red flag law. But even under the yellow flag law already in place, experts said this week, local police had enough probable cause to begin the process of pursuing a weapons restriction, based on the repeated warnings they had received from family members and colleagues in the Army Reserve. Card’s son and ex-wife had warned 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 could not have been more explicit in its expression of concern: he is “going to snap,” the letter said, relaying the fears of one of Card’s fellow reservists. He is going to “commit a mass shooting.”
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.”
The information from Card’s family and fellow Army Reservists seems to meet that bar, experts said.
In an earlier interview with the Globe, Keim said she did not see last week’s tragedy as an indication that Maine needs stronger gun legislation.
“Where [the yellow flag law] has been used, it has been effective,” she said last week. Since the law went into effect in 2020, Maine authorities have used the yellow flag law to issue weapons restrictions 82 times, records show.
Officers with the Sagadahoc sheriff’s office twice visited Card’s trailer in September, but failed to make contact, records show. The first time, no one was home, according to police. The next morning, a sheriff’s deputy, with backup from the Kennebec County sheriff’s department, also did not speak with Card.
“Card could be heard moving around inside the trailer but would not answer the door,” the deputy wrote in a report. “Due to being in a very disadvantagous (sic) position we decided to back away.”