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Maine’s yellow flag law use spikes after Lewiston mass shooting

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(NEW YORK) — The use of a Maine law that temporarily restricts access to guns during mental health crises has dramatically spiked in the month since the mass shootings in Lewiston, according to statistics obtained by ABC News.

The state’s so-called “yellow flag” law has already been invoked 36 times since the shootings in the city of Lewiston in late October, according to the state Attorney General’s office.

That number represents more than 30 percent of all weapons-restrictions orders imposed since the law went into effect in July 2020. That figure is greater than all of the times the statute was invoked in 2020, 2021 and 2022 combined.

“This is exactly what the yellow flag law was designed for. I believe the number of times this law has been used since we enacted it has saved a number of lives,” said Michael Carpenter, former Maine attorney general and Democratic state senator who helped establish the law.

The Lewiston shootings are a “poster child of what our law should have been used to prevent – there were all sorts of warnings,” Carpenter said in an interview with ABC News.

“The yellow flag law is a tool – if you don’t use the tool, you’ll never get there,” said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.

Trahan describes the group as representing hunting and firearms rights as well as conservation policy. They helped craft Maine’s yellow flag legislation.

“I believe this is an incredibly important moment in our country, where we have a chance to go back and identify all the flaws in our system and make some important changes,” Trahan said.

The massacre in Lewiston spurred questions about the effectiveness of gun laws already on Maine’s books — and whether law enforcement should have sought to have the shooter’s guns taken away after family members and associates noted he was suffering psychiatric distress.

Last July, suspected Lewiston gunman Robert Card was institutionalized for two weeks for psychological treatment and evaluation, as his mental state declined. By mid-September, amid warnings from a fellow Army reservist Card could pose a “threat to the unit and “other places,” that he was armed and dangerous, that he “refused to get help” and might “snap and do a mass shooting,” authorities attempted welfare checks at his home, according to a police incident report. Card refused to answer the door.

“The yellow flag law is doing everything it can do – within its confines – but going forward I think it’s deficient in important ways,” said Margaret Groban, a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan who teaches firearms law at the University of Maine Law School.

“We know in this case, [the shooter] was in crisis and had easy access to assault weapons. That’s a recipe for the massacre that happened. And maybe we could’ve saved twice as many lives,” Groban, who is also on the board of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, said.

“The bottom line on any law is it’s only as good as the people charged with implementing it,” Carpenter said. “I think it could and should have been implemented here.”

On Oct. 25, Card allegedly killed 18 people and injured 13 more at a bar and a bowling alley. After a two-day manhunt that forced thousands to shelter in place, police found Card dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the recycling center where he once worked.

In the months leading up to that point, Card, 40, had displayed a well-documented series of mental health issues. A yellow flag order was never completed for him.

Less than two weeks after the community emerged from lockdown, that shooting spree would start seeping into new, potential threats across the state, which were flagged to police, and Maine’s yellow flag law was invoked. That law allows the restriction of firearm possession for someone in a mental health crisis, after a report to the police, a police investigation, an exam by a doctor, and then an order from a judge.

Of the 36 weapons restriction orders completed since the shootings so far, several people whose guns have been removed have either explicitly namechecked Card himself or signaled they might follow in his footsteps.

On Nov. 7, the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Office responded to a 44-year-old man “concerned he will be the next mass shooter,” according to the state’s list. The man already had a “history of removing firearms when [he was] depressed and suicidal.”

On Nov. 10, Auburn Police responded to a 20-year-old man who had “attempted suicide by stabbing himself in [the] abdomen.” The man said he was going to be “the next Robert Card.”

On Nov. 11, Lewiston Police responded to a 50-year-old man who had a history of suicidal and homicidal ideations. The man had “told family he was going to do [what] Robert Card did, but with a knife.”

On Nov. 12, Brunswick Police responded to a 29-year-old man who claimed “he’s being ordered to kill his parents or son,” and “referenced Robert Card, the Lewiston mass shooter.”

Card’s mental health concerns have become a linchpin of authorities’ investigations into his massacre — and whether his psychiatric history should have barred him from possessing any guns at all.

Details in the weapons restriction orders since Lewiston echo some of the warning signs Card exhibited.

On Nov. 14, Lewiston Police responded to a 24-year-old man “threatening to cut himself and to kill himself with a gun,” to “kill [his] ex-girlfriend” and “threatened to confront her at son’s school, which resulted in a lockdown of the school,” the state’s list said.

On Nov. 26, Portland Police responded to a 53-year-old man “claiming to have died and come back as a divine entity who will confront police with his AK-47.” Police recovered two handguns, two shotguns and an AK-47.

Leading up to the shootings, Card’s family, fellow Army Reserve soldiers, and other community members told police they worried that Card might “snap,” that he had been hearing voices and making violent threats. In mid-July, Card spent two weeks institutionalized for psychological treatment and evaluation.

After authorities could not reach Card himself for attempted welfare checks in September, police told his brother they wanted “to make sure Robert does not do anything to hurt himself [or] others,” knowing Card was a capable marksman. Police told Card’s brother that if he thought Card needed “an evaluation,” to call back and they “would work with him to help facili[t]ate that.”

Card’s brother assured that he and his father “would work to ensure that Robert does not have access to any firearms,” the report said, adding, “they have a way to secure his weapons.”

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