Tatiana Whitlock owns a semi-automatic AR-15 assault-style rifle, the type of firearm that was used to kill 20 students and six teachers at an elementary school Dec. 14 in Newtown, Conn.
A Portland instructor of self-defense and tactical training courses, Whitlock is the owner and founder of a six-month-old company called HammerFour. She teaches tactical training for law enforcement officers and citizens looking to become proficient marksmen.
This year, Whitlock and her staff trained 40 firearms owners, and she plans to travel the country in 2013 teaching more classes.
“It’s just a machine or tool like any other style,” Whitlock said of the AR-15. “It’s a tool adopted by the military essentially because it is simple and not that complex. It looks different than a hunting rifle. It’s lighter. Other types of guns have a wooden stock.”
While there are no numbers detailing how many semi-automatic guns are owned in Maine, firearms are part of the culture.
Mainers own a variety of firearms, the majority using them for sports such as hunting and target shooting, though few in Maine own semi-automatic assault-style rifles.
Whitlock said some civilians who take her class own an AR-15, but it mostly is a novelty piece.
She said the firearm can be highly customized, which makes it attractive to a gun owner who wants a firearm custom-fitted for his ability.
“From a civilian standpoint, people get the AR-15 the way they get an antique car,” she said. “The media has done a good job demonizing this piece of equipment. But it is a good piece of equipment.”
In the wake of the shootings in Connecticut a national discussion has re-emerged over gun-control laws and possible bans on semi-automatic assault-style rifles. Semi-automatic hunting guns — which are much different from the AR-15 — are more common.
David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, owns a semi-automatic hunting shotgun but said he rarely uses it.
“It was my friend’s, and he left it for me when he died,” Trahan said. “It’s a hunting firearm. I don’t like semi-automatics, but I use it once a year when I go duck hunting in his memory.”
Gun collectors enjoy owning different kinds of guns — much the way automotive fans enjoy collecting old and expensive cars — and an extensive collection may well include a semi-automatic assault-style rifle.
Trahan cautioned against categorizing different styles and calibers of guns for specific purposes or crimes.
“I would consider any gun used to harm another an assault weapon,” Trahan said. “We live in the most rural state in the country, and hunting and shooting is deeply rooted. You go out anywhere in Maine the week before hunting season you can hear people shooting skeet, sighting in rifles. It’s just part of our culture and what we do. But 99 percent are responsible gun owners.”
HUNTING VERSUS ASSAULT-STYLE
While different styles of semi-automatic firearms are sold in Maine, fully automatic firearms, which fire continuously as long as the trigger is depressed or until they run out of ammunition, require a federal firearm permit to own and are rare.
Semi-automatic hunting rifles are common at sportsmen’s clubs. These guns have the same mechanism as a semi-automatic assault-style firearm, such as the AR-15.
Both can fire many rounds quickly, automatically ejecting the spent shell and providing a fresh cartridge from the magazine each time the trigger is pulled. However, the cosmetics of the two guns are vastly different. The hunting rifle is simplified for hunting and often has a wooden stock.
The semi-automatic assault-style rifle is usually lighter, is easily customized to fit the individual using it and usually is black.
Either rifle can be sold over-the-counter without a permit or license in Maine, but not all gun dealers in the state carry the assault-style semi-automatic rifle. L.L. Bean does not stock it, nor does Indian Hill Trading Post in Greenville.
Indian Hill owner Craig Watt said he does order three to four a year for interested customers.
“The number one reason they want it is because they’re a gun collector,” Watt said. “Recently, and I mean in the last two years, I’d say people want it because they are afraid legislation will make them illegal.”
Cabela’s carries it, and the price ranges from $700 to $1,000.
However, in Maine’s gun clubs, the assault-style firearm is hard to find, and Whitlock appears to be one of a small number of Mainers who own one.
MOST HAVE SINGLE-ACTION GUNS
A visit to any of the nearly 100 rod and gun clubs across Maine provides a view of the styles of shotguns, rifles and handguns used in the state.
Most firearms at these clubs, which attract hunters and competitive shooters, are not semi-automatic but single-action.
Moreover, club members say semi-automatic assault-style firearms are not easy to find in Maine, although you do hear about them.
At the Scarborough Fish and Game Association, which boasts 1,000 members, club president Fred Wiegleb said he never sees these firearms, and the Scarborough facility is one of the largest in the state, with several gun ranges of all types.
Wiegleb said it likely serves as a collector’s item for civilians.
“I wouldn’t venture a guess how many have a military-style semiautomatic rifle,” said Wiegleb, 78, a competitive shooter for more than 50 years. “When you go back in time, the government used to promote marksmanship as a way to train military. And back at that time, in the competitions they used military service rifles, the World War I issued rifles.”
At the York County Fish and Game Club in York, club officer Michael Doherty said the AR-15 is rare.
And at the Falmouth Rod and Gun Club, vice president David Ennis said he has heard about members who own an AR-15 but has not seen one.
“From my understanding, guys take it to their back-40 and shoot the heck out of something,” Ennis said. “Our range is more purposeful for those sighting in their rifles for hunting season. You don’t see those on the firing range.”
GOOD FOR HUNTING COYOTES
Gunnar Gundersen, club president at the 400-member Lincoln County Rifle Association, said if AR-15s were widespread, sportsmen probably would see them more.
“There is a very big hunting culture in the state, and a lot of competitive shooting,” he said. “It’s hard to find a safe place to shoot today. It’s harder and harder to find a gravel pit. People are looking for a safe place, and so they go to clubs,”
However, if the firearm remains accessible to the public, its popularity could grow.
Some sportsmen said it would be the perfect firearm for hunting coyotes at night, an increasingly popular activity in Maine, with a season running from December to August.
Since the Maine deer herd declined during the hard winters of 2008 and 2009, coyote hunting has increased statewide as a way to help the deer survive winter.
It is now promoted and, to some extent, financially supported by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Craig Gerry, president of the Durham Rod and Gun Club, said the semi-automatic assault-style rifle is perfect for coyote hunting.
“I don’t know anyone who has them,” Gerry said. “But they are light. And they are very accurate from 200 to 300 yards. They even have night scopes. People are finding they are a very efficient tool for coyote hunting.”
Still, semi-automatic hunting rifles are usually used for this purpose, hunters say.
In Aroostook County, where the deer herd took the hardest hit during those tough winters, Registered Maine Guide Tenley Bennett said some coyote hunters use semi-automatic hunting rifles to help the whitetail recover — but not assault-style firearms.
Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at: