Don’t settle for political cover on ‘red flag’ bill that could save lives

On Monday, the fight over sensible gun laws in Maine was renewed as the Legislature held a public hearing on extreme risk protection orders, or the “red flag” bill.

The legislation, if adopted, would allow the police or members of a person’s family to seek a court order to have firearms temporarily removed from the possession of someone in crisis. Extreme risk protection orders are good policy and promote public health. They also save lives.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, left, reaches out to Rep. Tom Sullivan, D-Aurora, after his statement about the death of his son in the mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora during a bill signing ceremony April 12 in the State Capitol in Denver. Polis went on to sign a bill to allow Colorado to become the 15th state in the union to adopt a “red flag” gun law allowing firearms to be taken from people who pose a danger. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

If Democrats were of one mind, they could enact the policy despite Republican opposition. But Democrats are not of one mind, and the ultimate showdown could come down to progressives in the Legislature versus a more conservative – at least on guns – Gov. Janet Mills.

During the Democratic primary, Mills’ opponents took aim at her for her record on guns. Mills responded – carefully and precisely. She was looking ahead to the general election and tried to avoid kicking the gun hornet’s nest.

Now, the “red flag” bill is the first test of whether she remains more closely aligned with groups such as the Gun Owners of Maine and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine or with the vast majority of voters who support efforts to reduce gun violence and who helped to elect her.

In public comments to date, I’m not optimistic. Mills has said she’s hoping for a bill that would bring together gun advocates and those who support more aggressive action to combat the scourge of gun violence.

But I can tell you from experience – I managed the unsuccessful background check campaign in 2016 – there is no effective policy that the Gun Owners of Maine, and perhaps even SAM, will support that might keep guns away from someone.

If you honestly believe – and for all their faults, I believe that they are sincere – that efforts to keep guns away from criminals or people who are a risk to themselves or to others is a form of despotism or a way to seize the guns of law abiding citizens, I’m not sure how you can expect a good faith compromise.

A compromise with the diehard gun enthusiasts that would actually be effective at reducing the death toll of nearly unfettered access to weapons is as rare as a unicorn that poops rainbows. Sure, maybe it exists, but I’ve never seen one.

Republicans – maybe every one of them – will take the easy way out. No need to rile up part of their base. They’re going to oppose any restriction on guns.

So it comes to Democrats. Will they pass a law that could be effective or will they settle for some “victory” that allows them to say that they did something while accomplishing very little.

I’m a gun owner. I love to shoot. I grew up in a family where guns where always present. My uncle Buddy kept a long-barreled .44 Magnum hanging in a cowboy holster from his bedpost. My uncle Ed had an intricately carved Type 99 Japanese rifle that he’d gotten after World War II. My grandfather had a .30-cal. M1 carbine that’s still one of the coolest I’ve ever fired. And I’ve fired a bunch.

I have my dad’s guns to this day. I don’t hunt anymore, but I keep them, hoping to pass them down to my kids someday. But I would not hesitate – not for a moment – to get them out of the house if I thought they posed a risk to my family or the public.

If you read this column regularly, you know that I’m a fan of Mills. What she has done around health care, particularly, will literally save lives. On guns, we have been in a different place. And I’m afraid that we still are.

Fifteen states have red flag laws similar to the one being considered in Maine, and they have earned bipartisan support around the country. Hopefully, Maine will join them.

I consider myself a pragmatist and an incrementalist. Small improvements matter. But I can’t support a bill on this issue that lets political leaders pretend that they did something and then take cover.

My kids practice taking cover in school – in case of the worst. If they are expected to have the courage to withstand a school shooting and to find a place to hide if they’re unlucky enough to be caught in the halls during a lockdown, then I think we should expect our political leaders to have the courage to reduce the risk.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at