Can Maine shooting and public support for red flag laws finally spur action?
Last week’s horrific shooting in Maine that left 18 dead and 13 others wounded has already raised the questions that have become familiar after mass casualty events. What motivated the suspect, 40-year-old Robert Card, to go on his rampage in a Lewiston bowling alley and bar? Why was the U.S. Army reservist, who had been hospitalized for a serious mental illness as recently as this past summer (an episode that reportedly included hearing voices in his head), not under closer supervision? And how is it that he had unfettered access to the powerful semi-automatic assault rifle that was used in his attack?
The last question has a relatively easy yet troubling answer. Maine does not have a “red flag,” or “extreme risk protection order,” law that allows loved ones or law enforcement officials to petition a court to prevent someone at great risk of doing harm to themselves or others from having access to firearms. Card owned multiple guns. Here was someone who may have been divorced from reality, whose behavioral problems were not even hidden from those who knew him, who had a military-style assault weapon — often the choice for mass shootings in this country — and authorities in Maine were powerless to do much about it.
That needs to change.
Maryland has a red flag law. At least 20 other states do, too. But Maine does not. It has a watered-down “yellow flag” version. Families across this country should be able to take action when they know a son or father, a wife or daughter is at risk of hurting themselves or others. Not just that they will launch an attack against family or neighbors or complete strangers, but that they could potentially take their own lives, which is by far the most likely scenario.
This should not be a gun owners versus gun “grabbers” debate. We are past that. Even Fox News, hardly a liberal bastion, released an opinion poll earlier this year showing that Americans back tougher gun laws, from the 87% who favor criminal background checks for gun purchases to the 77% who think there should be a 30-day waiting period for gun purchases. And what did respondents think of red flag laws where police might remove guns from the home of someone judged a danger to himself or others? That was supported by 80% of the respondents. A majority, 61%, also would ban all assault weapons.
We’d support a national assault weapons ban, too, but we recognize that even with these attacks, there are hard-core Second Amendment advocates with too much sway in the Republican Party to expect action in Congress. Even the U.S. Supreme Court is uncertain on that front. But a red flag law? That’s something else entirely. Not only is there overwhelming public support, but the argument against it is shockingly weak, claiming that such laws amount to government overreach and lack due process. But given that states have involuntary civil commitment laws that allow them to place a person in a mental hospital against his or her will if judged a threat, this is surely no overreach. There are due process protections.
Of course, it would be foolish to think that red flag laws could be the final word on gun violence in this country — or even mass shootings, given Card’s rampage was the 36th such event this year in the U.S. The problem is much bigger than that. But Americans are tired of so much inaction in the face of such obvious peril. And this isn’t just some minor element of our gun violence epidemic. More Americans die each year from gun-involved suicide than are shot dead by others. Indeed, if Congress wants to demonstrate it’s paying attention (and newly elected House Speaker Mike Johnson is looking to build bipartisan consensus in his chamber), there is scarcely a better policy to pursue. The House approved similar legislation, the Federal Extreme Risk Protection Order Act, in 2022 under Democratic leadership, but it failed to muster the needed votes in the U.S. Senate.
This time it was Lewiston. Before there was Uvalde and El Paso, Texas; Virginia Beach, Virginia; Parkland, Florida; Las Vegas, Nevada; and Newtown, Connecticut, and that’s just a small sample of the last decade or so. When will enough really be enough?
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