August 26th, 2019

New Maine law requires a mental health evaluation to remove weapon

gun safety mental health MaineMaine Governor Janet T. Mills recently signed a bill into law that requires a medical professional to confirm a person is a danger to themselves or others in order to temporarily take away their weapons.

The bill passed in the Maine Senate 32 to 0, and 135 to 9 in the House of Representatives.

This law is “unique because we were able to get both the gun rights and gun safety folks on the same page,” said Sen. Mike Carpenter (D-Houlton), who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Lisa Keim (R-Oxford).

“All parties realized that people shouldn’t have guns at certain points in their lives,” Sen. Carpenter said.

The new law is an alternative to so-called “red flag” bills, which have been passed in 17 states.

“The thinking behind the red flag concept, is that people who are in some state of distress or crisis… don’t have access to firearms to reduce the risk of harming themselves or others,” said Derek Langhauser, chief legal counsel to Gov. Mills and author of the new law.

Typically, family members can petition courts to remove a person’s firearms, which opponents see as too open-ended and subject to abuse, he said.

“As I’m talking to you, [if we were] in a red flag state, someone could be going to court and making assertions about my mental health and status, and be allowed to deprive me of my weapons,” Sen. Carpenter said.

The new law in Maine, however, requires a medical professional to conduct an evaluation once a person is taken into protective custody by a police officer.

This evaluation includes an assessment of the person’s history and recent behavior; signs of deteriorating mental health; and whether they pose a threat to themselves or others.

If they do, they must relinquish their firearms until a judicial hearing is held (within two weeks). During that hearing, a judge determines whether to dissolve or extend the initial restrictions. If the restrictions are dissolved, the individual’s weapons are returned. If the restrictions are extended, the weapons are withheld for up to one year.

The new law, according to Langhauser, provides a middle ground. Previously, he said, if someone was taken into protective custody, they had two options: either be admitted into a psychiatric hospital or be back on the street.

The standard for being involuntarily committed is very high, Langhauser said. If someone doesn’t meet this standard but is deemed a threat to themselves or others, “that individual would be safer without immediate access to firearms.”

Sen. Carpenter also noted that medical professionals are required to give individuals a list of community resources.

A challenge of the new law is finding available medical professionals to conduct assessments because “Maine is such a large state, and so much of it is rural,” Langhauser said.

They’re working on a telemedicine system to allow officers to connect to a network of practitioners, including psychologists, and have a person evaluated via video conference, he said.

Langhauser said that the new law will go into effect on July 1, 2020.

Overall, Sen. Carpenter emphasized that the goal is to keep individuals who are having a momentary issue or crisis as safe as possible for themselves and the community.

Margarita Tartakovsky, MS, is a Florida-based freelance writer and an associate editor at PsychCentral.com.

By Margarita Tartakovsky, MS

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