Maine responds to gun law

Dale Armstrong doesn't have to consult his notes. If you ask about people who buy guns in spite having been declared mentally unfit to do so, he can rattle a long list off the top of his head.

Raymond Hunter Geisel comes to mind. He's the Bangor man who, in 2008, was arrested with an arsenal in Miami after threatening to assassinate George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Before any of that, Geisel had been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility — blue-papered — back in Maine. He was prohibited from buying firearms. Yet, he was able to walk into several gun dealerships and buy what he wanted.

"The blue paper never came up in his background check," said Armstrong, resident agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ Portland office.

He rattled off four or five other cases of a similar nature. Women and men from all around the state who were able to buy guns despite documents signed by judges declaring them mentally unfit.

"There have been quite a few cases," Armstrong said, "of people adjudicated mentally ill who have gotten their hands on guns."

Maine has been identified as one of 17 states that have only partially complied with a law that requires them to share the names of the mentally ill with a background database.

The federal law was put into effect after the 2007 shooting rampage at Virginia Tech, during which 32 people were shot and killed. Following the massacre, it was revealed that the shooter had been able to buy guns even though he had been declared a danger in 2005 and ordered to undergo mental health treatment.

The deadline for complying with the law was the beginning of the year. Federal officials said nine states have not submitted any names to the database. Seventeen others, including Maine, have sent in fewer than 25 names. Federal officials worry that gun dealers around the country could be doing background checks with an incomplete list.

In Maine, police officials say the few names submitted to the list does not mean state officials are being lazy or indifferent to the new law. Instead, it comes down to different interpretations.

The way the law reads, the name of anyone who is committed involuntarily to a mental health facility shall be submitted immediately to the federal database. That name should show up in firearms background checks, regardless of whether the issue was resolved.

For Maine lawmakers, it isn't so clear.

"There were several compelling stories about how disastrous that would be to some individuals," Maine State Police Maj. Raymond Bessette said.

In some cases, a mental health crisis is resolved quickly. That person may have moved on, but if his or her name was submitted to the database, he or she will have been declared a danger, unfit to keep a firearm.

If a person willingly seeks help for an emotional issue, the law doesn't apply. Not everyone who seeks psychiatric help is declared unfit to possess a firearm.

"If your family takes you there and you agree to go in," Armstrong said, "you will not be adjudicated mentally ill. You are not prohibited from owning a gun."

Presently in Maine, the names of such people are submitted after a third-stage hearing, Bessette said, when papers have actually been signed declaring a person mentally ill.

In Maine, very few people reach that stage. Bessette estimated there may be 20 to 25 per year, which may account for the low number submitted to the database.

For lawmakers, it's a matter of balancing public safety with individual rights.

"Maine took a bit more caution in protecting its citizens," Bessette said.

Eleven states have provided more than 1,000 records each to the federal database, according to The Associated Press, yet gun control groups have estimated more than 1 million files are missing nationwide.

Nine states — Alaska, Delaware, Idaho, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and South Dakota — haven't submitted any mental health records.

Some officials say privacy laws, outdated record-keeping and a lack of funding inhibit the effectiveness of the law. According to the AP, Congress has doled out only a fraction of the $1.3 billion promised between 2009 and 2013 to help states and courts cover the cost of the law.

The Jan. 8 shooting spree in Tucson, Ariz., that killed six put more emphasis on the need to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. However, the shooter in that rampage would not have been prohibited from buying a gun. Police said Jared Loughner was considered mentally unstable, but that he had never been deemed mentally ill by a judge or committed to an institution.

Likewise, if a person exhibits signs of mental instability, that doesn't mean police can just take their guns and refuse to give them back.

"We have several instances where we have taken firearms into custody for safekeeping when we believed that the person may be a harm to themselves or others," said Deputy Chief Jason Moen of the Auburn Police Department, "only to have to give them back when they have been cleared by the hospital."

"Due to patient confidentiality laws, there is a degree of disconnect between doctors and police on trying to substantiate a history of mental illness in a person," Moen said. "Doctors try very hard to give us what we need within the confines of the laws, but sometimes their hands are tied."

Local police departments do enforce the 2008 federal law, Moen said. "If we find out they are possessing firearms after being blue-papered, we investigate it and turn it over to ATF."

According to Bessette, more legislative sessions, more committees and more debating will occur before the law smooths out.

In the meantime, at the ATF, Armstrong said his investigators will continue to track down those who slip through the cracks.

"This," he said, "is about making sure everybody is safe."

mlaflamme@sunjournal.com

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Comments

 's picture

Oh this must make the

Oh this must make the liberals wring their hands! Evil guns, take them away! Oh wait, mental health issues? Oh, can't make you responsible, must let you do what ever you want, whenever and where ever you want! Oh, and you don't have to take your medication either...

Gun Laws! Where's the punch line?

We need to review our gun laws! The only people the laws are harming are the LEGAL gun owners! I live next door to a convicted felon. He gets caught hunting without a license....OH, HUNTING! That means this felon had a gun! Not to mention the other guns he handed over when the game wardens went back to his house. Oh but do not worry those in fear.......he was severly reprimanded! A $750 dollar fine!!! But do not worry about this man.......was that a gun his coat was draped over as he left his house the next Thanksgiving day????

GARY SAVARD's picture

This bureaucratic BS is far

This bureaucratic BS is far more of a problem than would be addressed by new proposals being brought up by the anti-firearms folks. Complying with existing laws will do more to keep guns out of the wrong hands than creating new ones that are also subject to moral interpretation by state officials.

 's picture

background checks

I'm buying Ted Geisel a bus ticket to Augusta. Sounds like they wouldn't even put him in jail in Maine. Not being able to mow down 32 people might interfere with his individual rights.

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