The white-haired man in a flannel shirt and suspenders sat among a bevy of reporters and listened intently while Portland Mayor Michael Brennan pleaded for the nation to take up stricter gun laws, especially for so-called assault rifles.
It was weeks after a deeply troubled young man armed with his mother’s .223 caliber semiautomatic assault-style rifle shot 26 children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Finally, in a timbre honed by years of Saturday mornings spent behind a radio microphone, Jeffrey Weinstein spoke up for the Second Amendment.
“One thing that kind of bothers me is the definition of assault weapons,” said the 70-year-old retiree from Yarmouth.
Like other advocates, Weinstein opposes designating one weapon as more dangerous than another based on its cosmetic features, such as a collapsible stock, muzzle flash suppressor or pistol grip.
As president and founding member of the Maine Gun Owners Association, Weinstein has spoken up for gun rights in Maine for years. But, since the Newtown shootings in December, he has made newspaper headlines and TV news broadcasts, granted dozens of interviews and become a go-to media spokesman for defenders of the right to bear arms.
Weinstein is less outspoken about his association, however, and has refused to say how many dues-paying members the group has or who they are. Weinstein, who has granted interviews to this newspaper in the past, was hesitant to discuss his life and role as an advocate and declined to return repeated messages requesting comment for this story.
Weinstein has worn many hats in his career — candidate for public office, radio engineer, Air Force serviceman, Yarmouth school board member, Civil Air Corps volunteer, libertarian conservative talk-radio host and firearms instructor.
“He’s done everything,” said George A. Fogg of North Yarmouth, listed in state records as the gun association’s vice president. “He’s a chief instructor, and he’s run many, many classes to get more people involved in teaching gun safety.”
WEARING MANY HATS
Born in Portland and a graduate of Deering High School and the University of Maine, Weinstein’s early career led him to Massachusetts, where he worked at defense contractor Raytheon, and then at stereo manufacturer Bose Corp., representing the company in marketing presentations across North America, according to a biography posted on a 2010 campaign website.
After a stint being stationed in Europe in the Air Force, Weinstein returned to Maine in 1977. He operated a marine electronics company before serving 17 years as CEO and president of Portland Marine Operator, the ship-to-shore communication company for Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. He also hosted a two-hour talk show on WLOB until about 2005, said Jon Van Hoogenstyn, station manager.
Weinstein leads the Yarmouth Republican Committee, although in the late 1990s, he was active in the Libertarian Party of Maine. During his unsuccessful bid for the State House in 2010, he proposed eliminating MaineCare to allow unfettered competition among insurers; reducing taxes; and eliminating burdensome state regulations to foster job creation.
OUTSPOKEN GUN ADVOCATE
But no job, political campaign or volunteer project has thrust him further into the spotlight than his role as an outspoken gun advocate.
And even if there is scant evidence that his group is more than an email list of like-minded Mainers, Weinstein clearly shares the viewpoint of many in the state who believe firearm ownership is a uniquely American bulwark against governmental intrusion on private lives. After Newtown, Weinstein has pointed to the federal and local attempts under way to legislate firearm ownership as evidence of overreach, saying that incremental limits now will lead to an outright ban on weapons down the road.
It is a fear many share, as Mainers flock to gun stores in record numbers to buy weapons and ammunition.
Requests for permits to carry a concealed weapon in Maine have skyrocketed in recent years, with 2013 expected to exceed past rates. In each of the two months since the shootings at Sandy Hook, applications for background checks in the state have been at their highest since the federal government started the program in 1998.
Weinstein said he is open to some gun law reforms, such as expanded background checks, and said he would be a willing partner in discussions with law enforcement and legislators as the gun conversation unfolds in Maine.
“Clearly he is more reasonable and more moderate than some gun owners,” said William Harwood, founder of the Maine Coalition Against Handgun Violence, who has debated Weinstein on radio shows and before legislative committees. “But still, there are other gun owners who are more willing to pursue more comprehensive gun regulation than Jeff.”
CALLING FOR ARMED TEACHERS
Weinstein has stood fast against defining semiautomatic assault-style firearms differently than hunting rifles, saying they operate in mechanically identical ways; he has also resisted limiting the capacity of ammunition magazines.
His most controversial pitch, however, came a week after the Newtown shootings. In a statement that blasted national media outlets for their coverage, and called for improvements to a deteriorating mental health safety net, Weinstein, who served for four years on the Yarmouth School Committee, suggested school districts encourage trained and certified teachers to carry concealed weapons into classrooms.
“If one of the ‘good guys’ had had a firearm immediately available during the Newtown shooting, things would have likely turned out significantly different,” Weinstein wrote. “Places designated ‘gun-free’ zones are recognized as defenseless; you might as well post a sign out front saying, ‘Attack me.’ “
The proposal was panned by police officials and some educators in Maine, but was echoed in a nationally televised statement a day later by the nations’s top gun lobbyist, Wayne LaPierre, CEO and executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, who called for armed guards to be posted in schools nationwide. Now, a bill is under consideration in Augusta along the same lines.
GROUP’S MEMBERSHIP HAZY
Unlike the NRA or the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, a statewide advocate for gun rights, membership in Weinstein’s group is difficult to discern.
The NRA boasts a membership of 4 million “moms and dads, daughters and sons.”
David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said his group reached 10,000 members after the shootings at Sandy Hook.
Weinstein, on the other hand, has refused in past interviews to disclose the number of members who pay $10 annual dues or $300 for lifetime memberships.
The issue of membership was raised in 2010 when Weinstein briefly ran for the Maine Legislature to represent the 107th District in Yarmouth, said Melissa Walsh Innes, who handily defeated Weinstein for the seat.
“The question we always had was, was this (group) one person, or was this a pulpit to speak for 500 people?” Walsh Innes said. “It’s easy to say you’re part of an association.”
At the time, Walsh Innes said, Weinstein was the chairman of the Yarmouth Republican Party and entered the race at the last moment. “He may have been doing it as a favor to the party,” she said.
Before Weinstein’s written statement about Newtown was published Dec. 20, the Maine Gun Owner’s Association website appeared inactive since about 2006. Other than Weinstein, only two men are listed on incorporation papers filed in 2003: Fogg, 80, and Harold Fairfield of Yarmouth, who is listed as the treasurer. Fairfield could not be reached for comment, and a message left at a phone number listed for him was not returned.
Fogg said members of the group communicate largely by email when necessary.
To Fogg, the Second Amendment is evidence that the framers of the Constitution shared his fear of an escalating role of government to control the private lives of its citizens.
“It was all about the tyrannical use of government to put down the people,” Fogg said.
“That is probably the biggest reason that people have been buying assault weapons like they’re ice cream cones.”
Staff Writer Matt Byrne can be contacted at: 791-6303 or at