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GOP lawmakers say shooting commission report is proof that new gun safety bills are unnecessary

Maine Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, looks through papers at his desk in the State House in Augusta in this August 2019 file photo.
Troy R. Bennett
/
BDN
Maine Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, looks through papers at his desk in the State House in Augusta in this August 2019 file photo.

Republicans in the Maine Legislature say an interim report by the commission investigating the mass shootings in Lewiston is proof that lawmakers don't need to pass any additional gun safety laws this session.

The commission's interim report faults both leadership with the Army Reserves and the Sagadahoc County Sheriff's Department for not doing more to utilize Maine's so-called yellow flag law to confiscate the gunman's weapons six weeks before he carried out the deadliest mass shooting in state history.

The report acknowledges that the law can be cumbersome, but "dedication and persistence" on behalf of law enforcement and the Army could have changed the course of events last October.

Republican House leader Billy Bob Faulkingham says the commission's finding is reason enough to abandon a slate of gun safety proposals backed by Democrats.

"It confirms what we were thinking all along, that Maine's yellow flag laws are sufficient, that they should have addressed the Robert Card situation," he said.

The interim report was released last Friday evening and just as lawmakers begin debating an array of gun safety measures, although none of them include changing Maine's yellow flag to a red flag law to make it easier to confiscate someone's firearms if they're deemed to pose a risk to themselves or others.

Several members of law enforcement who have testified during the shooting commission's meetings have said the yellow flag process is more time-consuming than it should be. The law went into effect in 2020 after lawmakers reached a compromise with gun rights activists that added additional steps to confiscation process that are not in place in the more than 20 other states with red flag laws.

According to data with the office of attorney general, Maine's law was used 81 times before the Lewiston shootings and 135 times since then.

Democratic leaders said Tuesday that the proposals they're pursuing aren't solely focused on those that would have prevented the Lewiston massacre, but helping to prevent the next one.

"We have a responsibility to, yes, react to what has already happened, but also to be proactive in thinking about what could happen in the future," said Rep. Kristen Cloutier, D-Lewiston, the assistant House leader.

The report, which was released after 5 p.m. Friday, said the Sagadahoc County Sheriff's Office had sufficient cause to take Robert Card into protective custody six weeks before the shooting. Rather than use Maine's "yellow flag" law to attempt to confiscate Card's guns, the report stated, the sheriff's deputies relied on assurances from Card's family members that they would try to remove his firearms.

Card killed 18 people with a high-powered assault rifle and injured more than a dozen at two businesses in Lewiston on Oct. 25 during the worst mass shooting in Maine history.

"(The) decision to turn over the responsibility for removing Mr. Card’s firearms to Mr. Card’s family was an abdication of law enforcement’s responsibility," reads the report. "This decision shifted what is and was a law enforcement responsibility onto civilians who have neither the legal authority to begin the Yellow Flag process nor any legal authority to seize weapons. Even after delegating that responsibility to Mr. Card’s family, the (Sagadahoc County Sheriff's Office) failed to follow up to ensure that the firearms had been removed from Mr. Card’s custody and safely secured."

Members of Card's family as well as fellow Army reservists had been concerned for months about his increasing paranoia, his aggressive behavior and his access to guns. Card had accused friends, family and total strangers of calling him a pedophile behind his back for months. But the situation took a more serious turn in July when he was hospitalized at a New York psychiatric facility for two weeks while his unit was helping to train West Point cadets in firearms and explosives. A sergeant first class with the Reserves, Card was described as a highly skilled marksman.

He was eventually released and returned to Maine but apparently never received comprehensive mental health treatment. Army leaders also never communicated their concerns about Card to local law enforcement or followed up on a recommendation from the psychiatric hospital that they attempt to remove his guns from his home, according to the commission.

In September, a friend and fellow reservist told his commanding officers that he was concerned Card might attack the Reserve facility in Saco.

"And yes he still has all his weapons . . . I believe he is going to snap and do a mass shooting," Sgt. Sean Hodgson wrote to one of his commanding officers in a late-night text, according to transcripts released by law enforcement and the commission.

Sagadahoc County sheriff's deputies testified earlier this year to the commission that they then visited Card's home to attempt a "welfare check" at the request of Army leaders. During one visit, Sgt. Aaron Skolfield believed Card was home but not answering the door. Having been warned that Card had access to weapons, the deputies backed off and Skolfield said he watched the home from a distance as he attempted to contact Card's relatives and Reserve leaders.

Skolfield testified that he didn't believe he had legal grounds to take Card into custody because he had not been able to conduct a face-to-face assessment of him and he had not committed any crimes.

"I was trying to figure out how to skin this cat from a different direction," Skolfield told the commission in January. "I can't make him come out, I can't make him answer the door, I can't make him talk to me. But at the same time I can't go barging into his trailer because he has 4th Amendment issues against search-and-seizure. He hasn't committed a crime."

Instead, Skolfield said he was assured by Card's brother that he would work to remove his access to guns. Reserve leaders also said they would try to get Card into treatment.

But in its interim report, the commission singled out Skolfield repeatedly and faulted him — as well as other law enforcement — for not attempting to invoke the yellow flag law on Card. Under the law, police can take a person into protective custody and have them evaluated by a medical professional. If both the evaluator and a judge agree the person poses a threat, police can then order them to temporarily relinquish any weapons.

Lawmakers are expected to continue working on the Democrats' gun safety bills on Thursday.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.