Report faulting Maine law enforcement over ‘yellow flag’ law lands amid legislative debate over gun control

Gun Rights

A commission’s findings that a Maine sheriff’s office failed to use its legal authority to place the mass shooter in Lewiston in protective custody and seize his weapons has introduced fresh concerns over the law’s effectiveness at a critical moment in a state legislative debate over gun control.

The state commission investigating the Oct. 25 mass shooting said in an interim report released Friday that the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office had probable cause to take the gunman, Robert R. Card, into custody under Maine’s “yellow flag” law, which provides a way to remove firearms temporarily from those in mental health crisis who pose a risk to themselves or others.

On Saturday, Bobbi Nichols, who was at Just-In-Time Recreation when Card opened fire, said law enforcement had a tool to keep the public safe, but failed to act.

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“They were fully aware of how dangerous he was and they just didn’t do their job – period,” said Nichols, whose sister, Tricia Asselin, was shot and killed at the bowling alley.

Sagadahoc Sheriff Joel Merry did not respond Friday and Saturday to repeated requests for comment. An earlier review ordered by Merry’s office found the department acted appropriately. He is running this year for reelection, according to state data.

The commission released its report just over a week after a legislative committee in Maine heard testimony on a proposal from Governor Janet Mills to update the yellow flag law and a separate bill to create a waiting period for some firearm purchases. A spokesperson said Saturday that the commission issued the interim report to update lawmakers before the legislative session ends next month. A final report is expected to be released in the summer.

The yellow flag law in Maine is the only one of its kind in the nation and last week advocates for gun rights told lawmakers that police have used it more frequently since the mass shooting killed 18 people. Passed in 2019, 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. It is narrower and requires more steps than legislation known as “red flag” laws. Enacted in more than 20 states, red flag laws let family members go directly to a judge to ask for weapons restrictions.

David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine’s Institute for Legislative Action, provided figures Saturday showing police obtained orders under the yellow flag law at least 132 times since the Lewiston shooting to take weapons from residents, compared with 81 times prior to the killings.

Trahan said the figures were provided to him by Mills. A spokesperson for Mills referred the Globe to the attorney general’s office, which didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The commission’s interim report also found the sheriff’s office could have sought to arrest Card in September after his friend, Army reservist Sergeant Sean Hodgson, said Card punched him following a visit to the Oxford Casino.

Had Card been arrested, the commission said prosecutors could have requested he be prohibited from owning or possessing firearms as a bail condition.

“They had ample probable cause for a yellow flag and an arrest warrant. Why didn’t they issue either one of them?” said Trahan. “This was about a system that failed. You can have all the gun laws you want, but if a system refuses to use those tools this is going to happen again.”

Mills unveiled her plan to update the state’s yellow flag law at her State of the State address in January. Her proposal would authorize police to go directly to a judge to initiate the process of taking guns from a person experiencing a psychiatric crisis.

Had such a provision been permitted prior to the shootings, police who tried to confront him at his home wouldn’t have been stymied when Card refused to answer the door for a face-to-face encounter that’s required under current law.

Mills will “carefully review” the commission’s interim report, a spokesperson said Saturday. Her office didn’t respond to a question seeking her views on how the finding on the yellow flag law could impact her push to change the law.

Card, an Army reservist, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound following a two-day search after the shootings at a bar and a bowling alley in Lewiston.

Fellow reservists, as well as members of Card’s family, had expressed concerns to law enforcement about his deteriorating mental health and collection of firearms in the months leading up to the shooting.

Family members told Sagadahoc County deputies in May that Card had shown signs of mental psychosis going back to early 2023 and that he had recently obtained up to 15 guns from his brother’s home. Last summer, he was hospitalized in a psychiatric facility after making threats against members of his Army Reserve unit, according to sheriff’s department reports.

Some gun control advocates said Mills’s proposal doesn’t go far enough.

“The yellow flag law is so complicated that even police and prosecutors have difficulty navigating it,” said Nacole Palmer, executive director of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition.

The coalition favors giving family members the authority to ask a judge to remove weapons from a person in crisis, she said.

David Pucino, legal director and deputy chief counsel for GIFFORDS Law Center, said the commission’s interim report highlighted why families need the authority to ask judges to intervene.

The report said the sheriff’s office left it to Card’s family to assess whether he needed a mental health evaluation, but did not make any plans to follow up.

The commission also singled out, Aaron Skolfield, a sergeant with the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office. Commissioners said Skolfield should had realized that he had probable cause to start the yellow flag process. Skolfield had information that Card had serious mental illness, had been hospitalized for two weeks, had access to numerous guns, had assaulted a friend, and threatened to commit shootings. Instead Skolfield left it to Card’s brother to remove his guns.

“This responsibility was that of the [Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office], not that of Mr. Card’s family. That is what the yellow flag law is for — it places this responsibility on law enforcement,” the commission said.

Skolfield couldn’t be reached for comment.

“Law enforcement said the family should do it but there wasn’t a process under Maine law for them to do that,” Pucino said.

But Laura Whitcomb, president of Gun Owners of Maine, said the interim report finding on the police failure to use the yellow flag law and the increase in weapons restrictions since the Lewiston shooting shows the problem isn’t with the legislation.

“In Maine, there is a lack of funding for our current judicial system as well as law enforcement,” she said. “It’s extremely unfortunate that our current law wasn’t used but I think its speaks to the fact that they are underfunded and they need some more training.”

Leroy Walker Sr., whose son, Joseph Walker, was shot to death in the bar he managed, said he hopes Maine adopts a red flag law.

The report makes it clear that the sheriff’s office dropped the ball, Walker said, and law enforcement must be trained to prevent worst-case scenarios like the Lewiston shootings.

“All the protocol was there – they just didn’t enforce it,” he said.

Laura Crimaldi can be reached at Follow her @lauracrimaldi. Sean Cotter can be reached at Follow him @cotterreporter.

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