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Maine Senate passes bill to expand gun background checks and tweak 'yellow flag' law

A Ruger AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, center, the same model, though in gray rather than black, used by the shooter in a Texas church massacre two days earlier, sits on display with other rifles on a wall in a gun shop Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, in Lynnwood, Wash.
Elaine Thompson
AP file
A Ruger AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, center, the same model, though in gray rather than black, used by the shooter in a Texas church massacre two days earlier, sits on display with other rifles on a wall in a gun shop Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, in Lynnwood, Wash.

The state Senate gave initial approval Friday to bills that would expand Maine's background checks requirement on gun sales and would tweak the state's "yellow flag" gun confiscation law.

Lawmakers also advanced bills that would impose a 72-hour waiting period on gun purchases and ban "bump stocks" that turn semiautomatic firearms into machine guns. But the Senate rejected a bill to allow Maine residents to sue gun manufacturers.

The bills face additional votes in the House and the Senate.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills introduced the background check and yellow flag bill, LD 2224, following the October mass shooting in Lewiston that killed 18 and injured more than a dozen others.

The measure would require background checks on all private, person-to-person gun sales that are advertised online or in print. It would also allow police to take a potentially dangerous person into protective custody for a medical assessment as part of Maine’s yellow flag process even if they have not yet committed a crime. The bill also orders the creation of additional "crisis intervention centers" where someone experiencing a mental health crisis can go — or be brought by police — as an alternative to hospital emergency departments or jails.

State Sen. Peggy Rotundo of Lewiston was among the 19 Democrats who voted in support of the bill. Thirteen Republicans and two Democrats opposed the measure.

"I can’t bring back the sons, daughters, grandparents, parents who lost their lives on Oct. 25, nor can I alleviate the ongoing pain of those injured that evening or the enormous pain of the families and friends that survived,” Rotundo said. “But I can vote for this bill, which will provide greater safety for Maine people in the future."

Under current Maine law, background checks are only required on gun sales conducted through federally licensed firearms dealers. Critics contend that has left an enormous private sales loophole that allows thousands of guns to change hands in Maine without background checks.

The governor’s bill does not go as far as advocates for so-called universal background checks would want, but does seek to capture any private sales that are advertised in print, such as in the classified circular Uncle Henry’s or on popular online marketplaces.

Background checks would not be required for sales or gun transfers between family, friends, hunting partners or others. Another provision of the bill, however, would make it a felony offense to “recklessly” sell a gun to a person who is prohibited from owning one. Supporters have portrayed the tough penalty as a way to incentivize sellers to run background checks on would-be buyers, even if they never advertised the sale.

The Lewiston gunman, Robert Card II, bought his firearms legally and passed background checks because he was not prohibited from possessing guns. But in its interim report, the special commission investigating the mass shooting found that police had ample reasons to use Maine’s “yellow flag” law to force Card to surrender his firearms.

Family and Army Reserve colleagues raised repeated concerns about his increasing paranoia, aggressive behavior and access to guns. But deputies with the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office said they never had the opportunity to try to invoke the yellow flag law on Card because they never had face-to-face contact with him. They also relied on assurance from other members of Card’s family as well as his Reserve leaders that they would work to remove his guns and get him into treatment.

LD 2224 would lower the bar for taking someone into protective custody if they potentially pose a threat to themselves or others. That would allow them to take the person for a mental health assessment and, eventually, potentially ask a judge to order the person to temporarily surrender their guns.

Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, sponsored the original yellow flag bill that became law in 2019. But she opposed the governor’s proposed changes.

“Maine has a first-in-the-nation, very strong law that the independent commission in Lewiston said would have been effective in stopping the tragedy in Lewiston had it been used,” Keim said. “And now we are going to look at a whole slew of bills — we are going to try everything, throw everything and see what is going to stick. But the law that we had on the books would have worked.”

Not all Democrats were comfortable with the bill.

Sen. Joe Baldacci of Bangor said he could not vote for a measure that would allow police to take someone in a mental health crisis into custody even if they haven’t committed any crimes. And Sen. Craig Hickman of Winthrop said while he supports other aspects of the bill, he could not vote for it because it creates two new felony-level crimes.

On other gun-related bills, the Senate:

  • Voted 17-16 to advance a bill to require gun purchasers to wait 72 hours before picking up a firearm unless the sale is between family members, involves an antique gun or does not require a federal background check.
  • Voted 19-15, again largely along party lines, to advance a bill, LD 2086, that would ban bump stocks and other mechanical devices that allow a semiautomatic firearm to operate more like a fully automatic or machine gun.
  • Voted 22-12 to endorse a bill, LD 2119, that would create a commission to study the creation of a system to allow people to voluntarily surrender their own rights to buy or possess guns.
  • Rejected on a 13-20 vote a bill, LD 1696, to allow Maine residents to sue gun manufacturers.

Lawmakers are also considering a separate bill that seeks to adopt the type of “red flag” law already on the books in more than a dozen other states. Red flag laws typically allow family members to directly petition a judge to order someone to give up their guns and do not require assessments from a medical professional. That bill is expected to face a more difficult climb in the Legislature, however.
Most of the bills face additional votes in both the House and the Senate.