CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK) — There were numerous warning signs about Robert Card’s mental health struggles before he went on a shooting spree, accused of killing 18 people in a Maine bowling alley and bar. In the days since the initial shock, the conversation has shifted to mental health and access to firearms.
“That could be in any town, in the United States or anywhere, the concern of people around you. Do we really know them,” asked Janet Bailey, resident of Mink Shoals, WV, after watching the situation in Maine unfold on television.
As they watched the heartbreaking aftermath of the shooting in Maine and learned more about the warning signs relating to Robert Card’s mental state beforehand, people in the tri-state and across the country started asking themselves what they would’ve done if they knew someone was in crisis.
“They say if you know, let someone know and we do, nothing happens,” said Doug Thompson, resident of Charleston, WV. “I think we need to look at our whole legal society and everything and how we deal with people with mental illnesses and criminal justice.”
In the weeks since the shooting, there has been an increased focus on 40-year old Card’s mental health history and whether or not his mental health should have limited his access to firearms.
A history of mental illness alone isn’t enough to limit someone’s access to a firearm.
“Having a mental illness, even a diagnosed one, does not automatically prohibit you from purchasing or possessing a firearm. Under the Gun Control Act of 1968 there are specific criteria that have to be met in order for a person to be considered prohibited, meaning that they can’t have a firearm in their possession, and they can’t go out and purchase one lawfully,” explained Jaclyn Schildkraut, Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium. “You have to be institutionalized in a non-voluntary capacity as well as being adjudicated mentally defective.”
But currently, 21 states and the District of Columbia have other measures in place to intervene. They are called Extreme Risk Protective Orders (ERPO), otherwise known as Red Flag Laws. Maine had something a little different called a Yellow Flag Law. Both are civil orders allowing someone to petition to have the court authorize the removal of a person’s firearms when they know someone is at a heightened risk of being an imminent danger to themselves and others.
“So, I am based in NY State, and in our state, it is not only law enforcement that can petition for an ERPO but also schools, medical providers, family members, etc. But, that is different state to state,” said Schildkraut. “But in the state of Maine, what has to happen is for a yellow flag petition to be successful law enforcement can’t only bring their concerns to the court, they also have to have that paired with a medical recommendation that this person is in fact, from a medical perspective, an imminent danger to themselves and others and this is a warranted removal.”
Before the deadly shootings in Maine, Card’s family members and co-workers did report their concerns. Local law enforcement tried to check on his wellbeing prior to the incident but weren’t able to make contact.
“Here is somebody who clearly was in crisis,” Schildkraut said. “Either they or others knew they were in crisis and steps were taken to try to get this individual help, albeit without much success, because after he went through this, he still was able to purchase a firearm.”
On the topic of gun deaths, violence and mental health, the advocacy group Mental Health America said the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent. The group recommended that Red Flag Laws avoid stigmatizing people with mental illness. Instead, the group said there should be, among other things, easier ways for people in crisis to surrender their firearms. They also said there should be training for gun shop employees on how to identify at-risk people who may be purchasing a firearm with the sole intent to die by suicide.
“Individuals with mental health concerns are more likely to be the victims of gun violence than they are to be the perpetrators of gun violence,” Schildkraut said. “It is important that we recognize when people are in crisis and we do things like firearm removal through red flag laws that allow us to remove the means or instrumentality that can make a situation more harmful or potentially lethal.”
West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky are not among the states with Red Flag laws.
As they examine the tragedy that happened hundreds of miles away in Maine, some people are asking what is to be learned from what happened.
“Of course, it was very sad to hear about the killings. But in our country, we have a big problem with mental health, and our country really needs to take more steps to combat this because most of the issues I think are around mental health,” Thompson said.
13 News reached out to the National Rifle Association to find out the organization’s stance on Red Flag laws and the incident in Maine. A media representative didn’t respond to that request, but in the past the NRA has said those laws pose a serious risk to Second Amendment rights.