Just when you thought the leader of Maine’s “open-carry” gun movement was, shall we say, a flash in the pan, he’s back.

Saturday afternoon, with his trusty Heckler & Koch USP Compact .357 Sig strapped to his side, Shane Belanger will meet once again at Portland’s Back Cove with like-minded folks who think the only thing wrong with loaded weapons on the street is that there aren’t enough of them.

Unlike their inaugural Back Cove barbecue three weeks ago, this weekend’s gathering comes with a rather odd community-service twist: It will be Maine’s first Open Carry Trash Pick-Up.

“This isn’t in response or reaction to anything,” said Belanger. “We’re just going to give back to the community.”

Some would argue that Belanger, at this point, is best ignored. But we focus this morning on his latest pistol-packing publicity grab for two reasons.

First, it’s only fair to warn would-be litterbugs that you’d best be avoiding the walking path around Back Cove starting at 2 p.m. Saturday.

Second, as it becomes clear that Belanger’s Maine Open Carry movement is apparently going to be around for awhile, a couple of questions beg to be answered:

Who exactly is this guy? And why, as he wraps up his freshman year on the University of Southern Maine’s peaceful Gorham campus, does he see modern-day America as a place where you’d best be packing heat?

Wednesday afternoon, I sat down for an hour with Belanger at USM’s campus center to learn how a 19-year-old college student who grew up just outside of Caribou has suddenly become the patron saint of Maine’s lock-and-load movement.

I told him I have two theories about people who insist on exercising their legal right here in Maine to walk around with loaded firearms on their hips:

One is that they’re making a statement about the sanctity of the Second Amendment. The 18th-century need for a “well-regulated militia,” they maintain, still trumps the 21st century need for common-sense firearms regulations.

The other is that they’re just plain paranoid.

So which is Belanger?

“I’m a little bit of everything,” he said with a smile.

He is, for starters, a very nice kid.

He’s polite, personable and well-spoken, and doesn’t appear to be the least bit sociopathic. He studies hard, plays on the USM tennis team and already has lined up a 60-hour-a-week job paving roads in and around his tiny hometown of Woodland.

And last but by no means least, he loves guns. Since he first talked his father into taking him target shooting when he was 12, he’s been hooked on shooting skeet, trap, clay and, coming soon, pop-up silhouettes of bad guys at an International Defensive Pistol Association range.

Which brings us to the non-recreational side of Belanger’s passion.

“I think open carry deters crime, first and foremost,” he said.

For the record, Belanger has never been a crime victim – although a neighbor and family friend back home in Woodland was shot and killed by an unknown assailant in an apparent home robbery just over two years ago.

Belanger hesitates to call the yet-to-be-solved killing a life-defining moment, but it did reinforce his longstanding belief that day-to-day life is best approached with a loaded pistol at the ready.

“Like with anything, you don’t know when the next crime is going to occur,” he said. “I can walk out of my house maybe 150 times and maybe nothing happens at all. But that one time, if you don’t have a way to defend yourself, it sucks.”

I told him I’ve walked out my door tens of thousands of times over the past 50-plus years and never, not once, have I been confronted by a violent criminal. Nor, I added, would I want to go through life fearing that without a gun, my next moment might be my last.

Replied Belanger with a smile, “An armed society is a polite society.”

“Sounds like something you read on a website,” I countered.

“I did,” he readily confessed, still smiling.

Belanger said he spends a lot of time reading about firearms on the Internet – often in the wee hours after his homework is done. It’s there he gathers statistics that prove, he insists, that society would be safer with a full clip on every hip and a live round in every chamber.

But what about the many people, most notably those in law enforcement, who worry that loaded firearms on the street are dangerous, period? That while Belanger might not go off half-cocked and shoot someone, some angry or deranged person might get his gun away from him and wreak havoc?

“It’s never, ever occurred,” he said (with maybe just a bit too much certainty).

OK, then how about the creepiness factor? What does he say to the countless peaceful, law-abiding folk who can’t help but get nervous when they see a guy walking down a crowded city street with a gun hanging from his belt?

“If people carried every day, in their everyday lives, like I do, it would get people to really say, ‘Hey, I feel safer because they’re here,’” Belanger replied.

(In other words, the problem isn’t guys like Belanger walking around with weapons – it’s the rest of the populace’s inability to relax when we see them approaching.)

Truth be told, the only thing that worries Belanger more than his yet-to-materialize criminal assailant is the possibility that he might someday actually have to draw his Heckler & Koch (which his dad is bringing down from Woodland for Saturday’s trash pickup) in self-defense.

“That would be the worst possible scenario. You never want to clear leather,” he said. “As soon as (the gun) clears your holster, the whole world is different. Everyone is going to look at every single action that was taken by them and you – and if you weren’t in fear for your life, you’d better have a good lawyer.”

Then why carry the gun in the first place?

“There’s the whole thing of, I’d rather protect myself than not,” he replied, safely back in his comfort zone.

Where all of this will take Belanger is anyone’s guess.

Maybe years from now he’ll look back on Saturday’s armed trash pickup as a passing youthful fancy. Or maybe he’ll one day be the president of the National Rifle Association.

Either way, the more I got to know Belanger this week, the more I found myself feeling sorry for him.

He is, after all, only 19. A kid his age, with all he has going for him, should be heading out each morning and greeting the world with open arms.

Not a loaded weapon.

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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