PORTLAND — Gun owners plan to meet in Back Cove today with firearms in holsters.
Participants in the open-carry event will be asserting their constitutional right to bear arms in a state with some of the most permissive firearms laws in the nation.
Today’s open-carry event was organized by Shane Belanger, a University of Southern Maine freshman who grew up in Caribou.
“I’d like to see a bunch of people coming out, having a good time, eating some food, swapping some stories,” said Belanger.
Belanger said he’s got 41 people confirmed as guests to attend the barbecue, along with another 25 or so possible attendees, and three dogs. Belanger said his father may come down from The County to participate.
“He’s pretty excited – he’s very pro-Second Amendment,” said Belanger, adding that he personally didn’t plan to bring a gun to the event.
Belanger said he thought public response to the event has been positive. Some are wondering what’s going to happen, he said.
“They’re going to see how it goes,” he said. “It’s just friends with a common interest, coming together to have a barbecue – nothing more. We’re not going to be in anyone’s face, we’re just there to have a good time.”
Carrying a firearm in Maine requires no permit unless the weapon is concealed. There are no state background checks, waiting periods, licenses or safety instruction requirements for unconcealed firearms. Municipalities are prohibited from adopting more restrictive rules.
“We are on the extreme end, but there are a bunch (of other states) with us,” said Cathie Whittenburg, director of the Westbrook-based New England Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence gives Maine laws a score of 11 of a possible 100. The organization takes into account several dozen criteria, ranging from gun-dealer regulations to bans on assault weapons to limits on bulk purchases. way of comparison, the highest state score of 80 went to California and the low of zero went to Utah.
“There are, certainly in rural areas, legitimate reasons people have guns,” said Molly Warren, a spokeswoman for the Brady Campaign. “Urban, they have more crime implications. Mayors of cities are some of our strongest advocates because they see more problems.”
Maine is among the majority of states that allow firearms to be carried openly. Thirty-five states allow it, three prohibit it and 12 require permits, Warren said.
Maine has no statute that spells out the right to openly carry a firearm – there is merely no prohibition.
Matt Dunlap, Maine secretary of state and a board member of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said he remembers a time when it wasn’t unusual for a hunter to carry a rifle in downtown Bangor when shopping for a new sight.
“It’s almost unthinkable that in this day and age you would do that,” he said. “People are very alarmed by an open display of firearms.”
Dunlap said that shouldn’t be the case, and he supports today’s open-carry event, though he doesn’t plan to take part.
Although Maine’s fairly liberal gun laws may seem settled, “it’s always under scrutiny,” he said, making it important for gun owners to assert their rights – particularly in the state’s largest city.
That Portlanders might get upset over a group of gun owners openly carrying firearms, he said, “is a vagary of urbanism that we find amusing in rural Maine.”
“It’s less an issue here than it is in other states,” Dunlap noted, pointing out Massachusetts as an example of a state with strong gun control laws. Gun control advocates contend that Massachusetts residents can circumvent tough gun laws at home by buying firearms in Maine and other states where the regulations are more lenient.
Dunlap said he hopes the event in Portland spurs debate over gun laws, saying it’s an issue that’s best discussed before any action is taken. He said open carry is a right that many gun owners are rediscovering, and today’s open-carry event mirrors similar events held around the country.
Maine law deals only with the concealment and transport of firearms. The law prohibits the threatening display of a firearm but does not spell out how an unconcealed weapon should be carried.
When in a vehicle, owners without a concealed weapon permit should put their weapons out of reach – in the trunk, for example – with the ammunition kept separate from the firearm, said Maine State Police Chief Col. Patrick Fleming. Owners with concealed weapon permits are allowed to keep their firearms loaded and with them, he said.
Applicants for concealed weapon permits must answer a questionnaire about their background, show they have knowledge of handgun safety and be of good moral character. For the last category, police or town authorities can consider criminal records and domestic abuse.
Cumberland County Sheriff Mark Dion says he thinks Maine’s gun laws are more than adequate. He said law enforcement agencies are able to work well with the laws and that it makes sense for the state, rather than the municipalities, to regulate guns.
“If you have fragmented gun laws across communities, it would be confusing,” he said.
Today’s event has prompted a counterdemonstration by gun control activists who hope the Legislature will consider greater municipal regulation of firearms.
That would be a reversal. In 1989, the Legislature passed a law that stripped communities of local gun control authority. That happened after then-Portland Police Chief Michael Chitwood tried to use a 19th-century ordinance to ban carrying weapons in public between sunset and sunrise.
A 1980 state supreme court ruling against Freeport’s attempt to be more restrictive than the state on concealed weapon permits also helped form the current landscape, according to David Lourie, a former city attorney for Portland.
“I think, in general, municipalities were chastened by what happened in the 1980s and generally backed off,” he said.
In 1994, Portland drew national attention in the gun debate. Police confiscated a loaded 9 mm Glock semi-automatic handgun from a Windham man who was carrying it in a holster at the Deering Oaks Family Festival. Chitwood, who characterized the display by Bruce Mayberry as threatening, kept the gun for three weeks before returning it.
Dion said he was curious about the message open-carry participants are sending.
“Right now, they have a surprise factor on their part,” he said. “But when the dust settles, let’s see if it moves the conversation forward.”
– Staff Writers Edward D. Murphy and Matt Wickenheiser contributed to this story.
Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be
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