PORTLAND – The national debate over gun control in response to this month’s deadly shootings in a Connecticut elementary school could soon be heard at Portland City Hall.
At least one city councilor is poised to ask legislators to change state law so that cities and towns can enact local gun laws that are stricter than state statutes, which allow people to carry firearms openly, with few restrictions.
City Councilor Edward Suslovic, who leads the council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee, plans to ask Portland’s legislative delegation to submit a bill that would allow the city to ban guns from public buildings such as City Hall.
The shootings Dec. 14 at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., started an emotionally charged, nationwide debate over gun control.
Twenty children and six adults at the school were killed by a gunman with a military-style assault rifle.
President Obama and Congress are talking about new restrictions, including a ban on such rifles. And Maine lawmakers are preparing to debate changes in the state’s gun rules, including a proposal to allow teachers and administrators to carry guns to school as a way to protect children.
In Portland, Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence held a vigil Dec. 16 for the victims at Sandy Hook and called for tougher gun restrictions.
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan joined last week with mayors from New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Sacramento and dozens of other cities to urge federal action on gun control. The mayors called for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, stronger national background checks and stronger penalties for illegal gun purchases.
“I think a broad array of things should be on the table,” Brennan said. “(State) legislative leaders are convening a group to look at different proposals that might come forward. That might be the first and best forum for this to come forward for discussion.”
Suslovic, a board member for Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence, said he would like to have gun control addressed comprehensively at the national or state level.
Most gun owners in Maine are responsible, Suslovic said, but municipalities need more flexibility to regulate guns.
“Local, elected officials ought to be able to set policy on whether or not, and under what conditions, firearms should be allowed in public meetings and public facilities,” Suslovic said.
He plans to make his case to the city’s 10-member legislative delegation at its next meeting, slated for Jan. 4.
Municipalities cannot enact gun laws that are stricter than state law, which allows people to carry firearms openly, except in courthouses and jails or within 500 feet of schools and the state Capitol area of Augusta. Concealed weapons may be carried by holders of concealed-weapons permits.
“The city should continue to work at the state level to urge legislators to allow municipalities to enact the same protection for public meetings the state Legislature currently affords itself,” said Suslovic, who represented Portland in the House from 2002 to 2004.
A lobbyist for the National Rifle Association said his group will fight any legislation that seeks “to gut” the clause in Maine’s gun law that gives final authority to the state.
John Hohenwarter, the NRA’s director of government affairs for Maine, said that if the state weren’t the sole regulator of firearms and ammunition, gun owners would have trouble complying with laws in each town.
“One would have very little knowledge (when) driving from town to town as to what the gun laws are,” he said. “That’s why the state pre-empts these types of laws.”
In 2010, the Portland City Council passed a resolution calling on the Legislature to ban firearms from municipal buildings and areas of mass public gatherings.
Members of Maine’s Open Carry Association protested the resolution by wearing their firearms while testifying against further gun controls.
The resolution passed with a 6-1 vote. But the Legislature never took up the issue. Maine’s Legislature has strongly supported gun rights, and voted to loosen restrictions in the last two-year session.
“Traditionally, Maine is a state that, when it comes to protecting the Second Amendment, tends to be one of the best in the country,” said Hohenwarter.
The NRA and some legislators say that more — not fewer — guns is the answer.
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” said NRA executive Wayne LaPierre on Friday.
Maine Rep. Brian Duprey, R-Hampden, has proposed legislation to allow concealed-weapons permit holders — including teachers and school administrators — to bring guns to schools.
Similar bills are expected to be taken up in Oklahoma, Mississippi, Minnesota, South Dakota and Oregon.
The NRA is also supporting more funding for mental health services.
While previous efforts to restrict guns have failed, Suslovic said the new Democratic majority in the Maine Legislature will be more open to the discussion, especially in light of the Sandy Hook shootings.
“I think the climate has changed, but whether it has changed enough remains to be seen,” Suslovic said. “None of this is going to happen unless our federal and state officials see a groundswell of support for it, so that’s something the city could do.”
Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: