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What's the difference between yellow and red flag gun laws?

What's the difference between yellow and red flag gun laws?
What's the difference between yellow and red flag gun laws? 02:46

BOSTON – Many questions have been raised regarding the gun laws in Maine following a horrific deadly mass shooting that occurred last week.

According to multiple investigative documents, police were warned about Robert Card's mental health issues and access to guns on more than one occasion, by both his family members, as well as his peers from the Army Reserve.

Maine has what is known as a "yellow flag law," the only one of its kind in the nation. The law was enacted in 2020, co-sponsored by Republican State Senator Lisa Keim. 

By contrast, Massachusetts has a red flag law. WBZ wanted to learn the difference between the two to help understand law enforcement responses to potentially dangerous individuals who own guns.

Under Massachusetts' red flag law, any relative or roommate who suspects a gun owner is an immediate violent threat can apply for an emergency court order. If a judge approves that order, the gun owner must temporarily surrender their gun license and their guns. They can then appeal the order to get their guns back.

Red Flag Massachusetts
CBS Boston

Maine's so-called "yellow flag" law has a few extra steps in the middle. Someone who suspects a gun owner is an imminent threat, whether that be a close relative or a police officer, can report them to the police. Then it's up to local law enforcement to take that person into protective custody, order a mental health evaluation from a medical expert, and if the doctor and police deem necessary, apply for a court order to get guns temporarily taken away. Then, and only then, can a court order temporarily suspend a gun license or remove guns.

"It's about providing the judge really accurate information, or more accurate information on which to base, to make this judgment call," Sen. Keim explained. "It takes advantage of people's natural inclination to call law enforcement."

In Robert Card's case, multiple concerned people close to him did in fact, call law enforcement at the Sagadahoc County Sheriff's Office. However, the sheriff's office never implemented the next step by taking Card into protective custody and going through the state's yellow flag law.

In fact, the Sagadahoc County Sheriff's Department has never used the law, according to data provided by the state. 

Yellow flag Maine
CBS Boston

The yellow flag law in Maine has been used 82 times since it was launched in 2020. That, Senator Keim says, is evidence that the law is working. "Absolutely working well," she said. "I think if you compare your numbers in Massachusetts, how often has your red flag law been used effectively, based on your population versus how often has our yellow flag law been used effectively based on our population? I believe you would see that it has been used more effectively here in Maine."

A look at the numbers shows that in the five years since the red flag law was implemented in Massachusetts, it has only been used 57 times. Of those 57 times, 38 emergency orders have been issued to suspend gun licenses and temporarily take guns from potentially dangerous individuals.

Still, gun control advocates, like Margaret Groban from the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, say a red flag law is a better model. "We are the only state in the country that has yellow, and I would say that we are an outlier, not a model, that yellow places way too many burdens. If the goal is to get firearms quickly out of the hands of people who are dangerous, yellow is not the way to go," she said.

Given the seemingly low numbers of Massachusetts' use of its own red flag law, the President of the Massachusetts' Chiefs of Police Association says it's likely more public information on the law would lead to its use. "Perhaps a public service campaign comes out of the tragedy in Maine that could help inform Massachusetts citizens," Chief Thomas W. Fowler said. 

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