Maine’s yellow flag law and how it compares to other New England states’ gun restrictions

Local News

New England states boast some of the lowest firearm mortality rates in the nation, but the state laws of the region vary drastically.

A sign reads "Lewiston," referring to the town in Maine. The "o" in the name of the town has a heart taped over it.
A man photographs a make-shift memorial at the base of the Lewiston sign at Veteran’s Memorial Park, Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023, in Lewiston, Maine. The community is working to heal following shooting deaths of 18 people at a bowling alley and a bar in Lewiston on Wednesday, Oct. 25. Matt York/AP

The mass shooting that killed 18 people in the college town of Lewiston has brought into question Maine’s gun laws and legislators’ efforts to keep them so lax. 

Critics have pointed to Maine’s lack of red flag laws, which more than 20 states — including some in New England — have put in place to stop guns from getting into the hands of residents deemed high-risk or dangerous. 

What Maine has, instead, are yellow flag laws, which were written and passed in 2019 with the help of a gun-rights group, The Associated Press reported. It’s the only state with a so-called yellow flag law. 

How is it different from red flag laws, and how does Maine gun legislation compare to the rest of New England? 

Maine’s gun laws

Maine’s yellow flag laws work a lot like red flag laws, except there’s an extra step when it comes to how a gun can be confiscated from a person considered dangerous. 

The yellow flag law requires a law enforcement officer to report possible confiscation of someone’s weapon to a judge, and additionally a medical professional must do a mental health evaluation on the gun holder in question. With red flag laws, you either need law enforcement or a family member to go to a judge, depending on the state, but a medical evaluation is not necessary.

The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine’s executive director David Trahan told Maine Public Radio back in April that the gun rights group helped draft Maine’s watered-down version of “red flag” laws so that “due process” remained for gun owners.

But critics said it created yet another step in the way of getting firearms taken from those who shouldn’t have them in the first place. Everytown was one of the gun reform groups unsuccessful in implementing red flag laws in Maine, said Sam Levy, the advocacy group’s Northeast legal director. But what ended up passing in Maine, he said, made it “unusually difficult” to take a gun away from someone in a crisis situation, especially when it came to finding a doctor available to evaluate the gun owner. 

Jack McDevitt, a professor at Northeastern University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice who was part of a task force responsible for drafting better gun reform laws in Massachusetts a decade ago, said it also isn’t a decision that law enforcement or medical professionals want to make, based on his research of shaping stricter gun laws in the commonwealth.

“The people who are most vested in someone not hurting themselves are the people closest to them,” McDevitt said. “They’re most likely to know someone is going through a difficult time. They’re also the people who care about the person the most.”

Maine’s yellow flag law is currently under scrutiny as the investigation into Robert Card’s deadly rampage continues. Card had been medically evaluated for a mental health issue in the summer in New York, police had been notified of Card’s violent threats in September, and the shooter had been denied the purchase of a gun silencer in Maine after he put on a form that he had mental health issues.

Those with a felony or who are convicted domestic abusers can also not own guns. 

Since 2015, Maine is also a permitless carry state, meaning gun owners can legally conceal carry a gun without a permit, as long as they are 21 years or older — or 18 years and older if they are in the military. 

According to Giffords Law Center, a gun reform advocacy group that puts out an annual scorecard ranking each state on gun laws and safety, Maine received an F. 

How does New England compare?

With one exception, most of the New England states have stricter gun laws in place — and a different gun culture as well. 

“In Maine and New Hampshire, we see a culture where people are more likely to think that everyone should have easy access to a firearm if they want it,” McDevitt said.

New Hampshire, the only other New England state to receive an F on the Giffords scorecard, has limited laws when it comes to regulating guns. The Granite State doesn’t have anything like a “red flag” law in place, and like Maine, it allows permitless carry. Only age restrictions are put on the possession of a handgun, in which the owner must be 18 years or older. 

Vermont has passed several new gun laws in the last handful of years, including a red flag law in response to the fact that 88 percent of gun deaths are suicides in the state. 

“They have had a quantum leap in terms of their approach to gun safety,” Levy said. “Since 2018, they’ve passed a slate of bills that gave them many of the foundational laws that are so common in New England.”

High-capacity magazines are also prohibited, you have to be 21 or older to purchase a handgun, and the state requires background checks on all gun sales. However Vermont still allows permitless carry.

Massachusetts, Connecticut, and to some extent Rhode Island go leaps and bounds further than their northern neighbors with red flag laws in place, background checks when purchasing guns, and prohibition of high capacity magazines. Massachusetts and Connecticut go a step further in outlawing some semi-automatic weapons and requiring that all gun owners put their firearms in storage when not in use. Connecticut and Rhode Island have in recent years put restrictions on ghost guns, which are privately made and untraceable firearms. 

There have been criticisms of these laws, like that the red flag law is rarely used, which gun control advocates blame on the lack of public education around the law. But all of the states in New England, including Maine and New Hampshire, have some of the lowest firearm mortality rates in the country.

It isn’t immediately clear if Lewiston’s shooting will prompt New England states to take another look at their gun laws. New Hampshire Public Radio reports that state lawmakers there spoke at the Capitol about Lewiston while considering unrelated bills, and said the tragedy was “not cause for gun reform.”

U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, both of Maine, said they support looking at banning high-capacity magazines, but not assault-style weapons. Their stances comes on the heels of one Maine legislator, U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, who said the Lewiston shooting reversed his decision to support an assault weapons ban “like the one used by the sick perpetrator of this mass killing.”