PORTLAND — A local college student and gun owner is planning an event aimed at showing there is no harm in doing what state law says is perfectly legal — wearing a holstered firearm in public.
Shane Belanger, a University of Southern Maine freshman who grew up in Caribou, is organizing the “open-carry” event for Sunday, April 25, at Portland’s Back Cove.
At least 20 gun owners are expected to show up with their holstered weapons, Belanger said.
“I’m assuming most of the people will be carrying loaded weapons, but it’s not a requirement,” he said.
Belanger said free food and information regarding Maine law will be available. The event will start at 2 p.m. in the Back Cove parking lot across the street from the Hannaford supermarket.
“We might even take a stroll around Back Cove,” Belanger said. “But we are not going to be in peoples’ faces. We are trying to keep this event as low key as possible. It is going to show that not all people who carry guns are bad.”
Belanger said the open-carry movement has been sweeping the United States. Similar public events or displays have taken place in several cities and towns across the nation as advocates try to raise public awareness.
In 2004, Virginia gun-rights activists John Pierce and Mike Stollenwerk founded an online community called OpenCarry.org.
In addition to being a legal resource, the site has grown to be a social networking portal for thousands of American gun owners, according to a statement on the Web site.
OpenCarry.org cites an FBI report that concludes that “criminals don’t openly carry handguns.”
Belanger has been using the Web site to connect with other gun owners in Maine interested in joining him April 25.
The city of Portland served as a national lightning rod for open-carry advocates in 1994 after local police confiscated a handgun from Bruce Mayberry, who wore a holstered handgun to the former Deering Oaks Family Festival.
Former Police Chief Mike Chitwood eventually returned the 9mm Glock to Mayberry because Mayberry had broken no laws. At the time, Chitwood said that carrying weapons openly in public can create fear.
“This is definitely not a publicity event. We just want to open carry without people being afraid,” Belanger said.
“This a growing national movement, so he (Belanger) is not alone,” said Cathie Whittenburg, director of the Westbrook-based New England Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence. Whittenburg said there is an open-carry rally scheduled for Monday near Washington, D.C.
Open-carry advocates plan to stand on the banks of the Potomac River because while it is legal to carry a weapon openly in Virginia, it is not legal in the nation’s capital.
“We think open carry is a bad idea for Maine. It’s intimidating. How are people supposed to know what your intentions are.” Whittenburg asked.
“What if one of these open-carry people walked into a store with a loaded gun. What’s the clerk supposed to think?”
Portland Police Chief James Craig said his department has been in contact with Belanger and plans to monitor the event.
If someone files a complaint about their behavior or if someone removes a gun from a holster, it will be investigated, Craig promised.
“It could create a certain amount of fear in the community,” Craig said of the event. “Rest assured, we will respond (to a complaint) and we will investigate. But we don’t want to infringe on their rights. On the other hand, we do have a duty to protect the community.”
Craig said state law requires that anyone who carries a concealed firearm apply for a permit through their local police department.
Belanger, 19, described the upcoming event as a get-together of friends with a common interest.
Participants are welcome to bring spouses, children and pets.
“We are just trying to get people’s perceptions to change,” he said.
Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org