Our institutions failed us before Lewiston shooting

By Matthew Gagnon

Robert R. Card II, the perpetrator of the mass killing of 18 people in Lewiston last Wednesday evening was found dead Friday after a massive statewide manhunt.

In the time since he was found, we have started to learn just how badly our institutions failed us.

In May, family members reported Card to the police saying they were concerned about his mental health and the 15 guns in his possession. In July, after a disturbing incident at a training facility at West Point, Card spent two weeks at a mental health treatment facility in New York. In August, the U.S. Army determined that Card should have his access to weapons and ammunition restricted.

In September, a reservist contacted police to report his own concerns over Card, saying that he was worried that Card was going to “shoot up” the Army Reserve facility in Saco. This prompted the Sagadahoc County sheriff to issue an alert to law enforcement agencies statewide, noting Card was armed, dangerous and had made violent threats. Yet that alert was canceled on Oct. 18, just a week before his attack.

By any sober evaluation, it seems apparent that there was a catastrophic human failure here, not necessarily one of law. 

On Friday of last week, the Bangor Daily News reported that Card’s New York mental health evaluation wouldn’t have triggered Maine’s yellow flag law because he was put into protective custody out of state. This, if true, is an obvious flaw in the law, and one that needs to be immediately corrected. 

Yet despite that flaw, it seems the law should have been triggered for Card. Experts who spoke to the BDN this week say they believe that Card’s actions should have triggered an invocation of Maine’s yellow flag law, and indeed cases less severe than Card’s have led to that happening.

Before we have sorted out who or what failed and why, many people have focused on restricting gun access. I will not blithely dismiss that discussion. There is simply no getting around the fact that America has a lot of guns, and it would not be intellectually honest to dispute that the mass availability of guns makes attacks like this easier to commit. Were there to be a wholesale gun confiscation in America, there would doubtless be fewer attacks like this.

But no one, even gun control advocates, is proposing that. If they did, it would be both politically impossible to enact, and practically impossible to enforce. Instead, the ideas you hear most of the time relate to banning specific gun types, like the dreaded “assault weapon.” 

America has tried that before in the past, and the impact on gun violence was negligible, even according to government studies

The standard by which I judge ideas proposed in the wake of a tragedy like this is related to how likely it is that the idea would have stopped it. Sadly, attacks like the one Card carried out Wednesday are just as easy to carry out with semi-automatic pistols, particularly given the close range of his assault. I have no faith that this type of gun restriction would have done anything to stop Card.

Reflexively, the political right usually retreats to “mental health” when they perceive the left coming after guns, getting into a defensive crouch to grasp for anything that can deflect blame from guns. It is always a reflexive, empty, unserious reaction to a very serious problem. 

While the motive is political, the observation isn’t wrong. The inability of society to properly monitor and manage people experiencing mental health crises is behind many problems, and is largely attributable to the well-intentioned but ultimately problematic choice to deinstitutionalize mental health care in favor of a model of community-based management.

Bangor Mental Health Institute, now known as ​​Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center, once held more than 1,200 patients and is today only a 51-bed psychiatric hospital. A similar shift was seen in the Augusta Mental Health Institute, which at one time had a population of 1,500 before seeing a similar decline, later being replaced by Riverview Psychiatric Center.

The shift away from forced hospitalization was driven by many things, from better medications to treat mental illness to a new emphasis on patient rights. It now seems obvious that the change has left too many people forgotten and uncared for. The systems we now have are failing far too often. 

I’m certainly not advocating for “re-institutionalization” but clearly something has to change, and the pendulum needs to swing back toward stronger interventions. Maine and the nation can design a better system that preserves humane treatment while simultaneously taking seriously the need to protect both society, and those like Card who desperately needed help and didn’t get it.

Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

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