AUGUSTA — Maine lawmakers voted Tuesday to reject a “red flag” bill that would allow police to temporarily confiscate the guns of potentially dangerous people.
The bipartisan votes in both the House and Senate delivered a major blow to a top priority for gun control and gun safety advocates in Maine this year. But an alternative measure – negotiated between the Mills administration and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine – is headed to the chamber floors for consideration and could face better odds with support from Republicans and Democrats in rural districts.
The bill would have create a new “extreme risk protection order” that allows police to seek a court order to temporarily seize guns from individuals who could pose a threat to themselves or others. Police could issue such an order based on sworn affidavits from family or household members.
A judge would then hold a hearing within 14 days to review the case and decide whether to return the firearms to the individual or extend the confiscation for up to a year.
Sixteen other states – including Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and Rhode Island – have passed some version of a red flag law to remove firearms from potentially dangerous individuals. The measures have been signed into law by both Democratic and Republican governors at a time when few other gun measures are gaining bipartisan traction amid the contentious debate over how best to respond to mass shootings.
Bill sponsor Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-South Portland, said Maine has been fortunate to escape a mass shooting at a school, church or synagogue to date, but that many regard it only as a matter of time.
But Millett also pointed to Maine’s higher-than-average suicide rate and the state’s problems with domestic violence as reasons for passing the bill. While Maine consistently ranks among the safest states in the nation for gun-related crime, suicide by firearm was the most common cause of violent death in Maine from 1999 to 2016, according to federal data.
Millett said the 600-plus Mainers lost to suicide by firearm during the past five years should be “cause for alarm” enough to support the proposal.
“We can and we must do more to prevent firearms-related deaths,” Millett said during a floor speech. “L.D. 1312 allows families and law enforcement to intervene in times of crisis and take action that reduces the risk of suicide and gun violence.”
But gun owners’ rights groups had strongly opposed the measure because they saw it as forcing an individual to give up their firearms without the due process of a judicial review.
Sen. Mike Carpenter, D-Houlton, was among the six Democrats who joined all 14 Senate Republican in voting to reject the red flag bill. A former Maine attorney general now in private practice, Carpenter said he agreed with many of Millett’s points and the intent of the bill, but disagreed with the process.
Carpenter said search warrants have to be based on a credible allegation of criminal activity and he doesn’t see the process laid out in L.D. 1312 meeting that threshold.
“There is a better way to approach this situation,” said Carpenter, a member of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee that heard hours of testimony on the bill. “We do have people in our society who ought not to have weapons temporarily depending on their condition. This is not the way to go.”
Carpenter’s “better way” is a reference to an alternative that was negotiated by himself, a Republican counterpart, the administration of Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.
That bill, L.D. 1811, would allow police to take individuals into protective custody based on concerns about their mental health and potential to harm themselves or others. If a medical professional agrees an individual poses a threat, police would then order that person to temporarily surrender his or her guns.
As with the original “red flag” proposal, a judge would then hold a hearing within 14 days to decide whether to return the guns or continue withholding them for one year. The individual could petition the court once during that period for their return.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee voted 9-2 to endorse the alternative bill, which will now go to the full House and Senate for consideration. Lawmakers are racing against the clock, however, as they try to complete work on that bill and dozens of others before Wednesday’s statutory adjournment day.