PORTLAND — At least a dozen men carrying guns Tuesday attended a public hearing at City Hall on a proposal for state legislation that would ban firearms from public buildings.

The gun-rights advocates said they were the first wave of a larger armed contingent who will defend their constitutional right to carry guns in public buildings in Portland or any other municipality in Maine.

City Councilor Dan Skolnik, who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee, wants to build support for state legislation to ban firearms from public buildings where mass gatherings occur, or allow municipalities to do so.

With such legislation, Portland could ban guns from facilities such as City Hall, Fitzpatrick Stadium, Merrill Auditorium and the Portland Expo.

Skolnik has not identified a legislator to sponsor a bill, and it’s uncertain whether there will be a bill in the coming session. Gun-rights advocates say they will work hard to stop the effort before it gets out of Skolnik’s committee.

Police Chief James Craig will support legislation focused on public facilities and will ask Maine’s police chiefs and sheriffs to support it, according to a memo by city attorney Gary Wood.

About 15 gun advocates showed up in the council chambers Tuesday night to voice their opposition to Skolnik’s proposal. Two of them openly carried semiautomatic pistols, and nearly all of the others carried concealed weapons.

Many more gun advocates from all over Maine will attend the next public hearing on the issue, on Oct. 12, said Shane Belanger, founder of the Maine Open Carry Association. In addition, the National Rifle Association plans to send an attorney to the meeting from its headquarters in Fairfax, Va., he said.

An official from the NRA could not be reached for comment. On Friday, the national gun lobby sent an action alert to Maine members urging them to attend Tuesday’s meeting and contact Portland city councilors.

“This legislation would be the first step in an outright attack on your concealed carry rights,” the NRA said.

In Maine, guns are prohibited in schools, courthouses, jails and bars where the owners post notice. Guns are also banned in the Capital Area, which includes any state-controlled location in Augusta.

The Legislature passed a law in the 1980s preventing municipalities from prohibiting guns, even in municipal buildings, said William Harwood, a board member of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence.

While the Legislature has killed many bills over the years that would have restricted guns in some way, it might support a measure framed around the issue of local control, he said.

Cathie Whittenburg of Portland said guns don’t belong in public meetings, where controversial and emotional issues often are discussed.

“Guns in City Hall detract from an atmosphere of democracy,” she said. “Guns introduce an element of intimidation that is contrary to the open exchange of debate on controversial topics.”

Gun-rights advocates framed the issue around their constitutional right to carry firearms. One quoted Thomas Jefferson and Samuel Adams.

Some argued that violence has declined in jurisdictions that have passed laws allowing more people to carry weapons. Others argued that a law banning firearms in public buildings would affect only law-abiding citizens and would not deter anyone who intends to commit violence.

Belanger, a University of Southern Maine student who organized a gun-rights rally in Portland in April, said he didn’t think that anyone at the meeting was afraid that he was carrying a Heckler & Koch HK45, a .45-caliber pistol designed for use as a sidearm in combat.

“I don’t think the tone of this meeting is any different that I have a properly holstered handgun,” he told the committee.

But Karen D’Andrea, a former Marine who is executive director of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence, said in an interview after the meeting that the guns made her apprehensive about speaking to the committee.

She said the City Council should have the ability to ban guns from City Hall. “It defies logic that the city can’t set the rules of conduct for citizens inside this building,” she said.

Skolnik, who had planned to leave the council at the end of his term in December, now is running for re-election as a write-in candidate for an at-large seat. He said he hopes to develop a compromise on his gun proposal that will have broad support.

 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: [email protected]