PORTLAND — A man who carried an AR-15 assault rifle around Portland caused a flurry of phone calls to police Monday, just 10 days after a man with the same type of gun killed 28 people in Connecticut.
Portland police said the man was seen walking, with the rifle over his shoulder, from the West End to the Parkside neighborhood before ending up on the Back Cove trail, which is used daily by hundreds of joggers, walkers and cyclists.
Two police officers approached and questioned the man at the corner of Cumberland Avenue and Mellen Street.
He described himself as an activist who was exercising his Second Amendment right to openly carry a firearm.
He was not violating any laws -- it is legal in Maine to carry a gun in public -- so he was not required to identify himself or let the officers inspect his weapon.
After speaking with police, he walked from Parkside to Back Cove.
He never pointed the gun at anyone or made threats, police said.
Authorities have said that Adam Lanza carried an AR-15 assault rifle into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14 and killed 20 children and six adults.
He also killed his mother and himself.
On Monday, more than 65 Portland residents contacted police to report the man carrying the rifle.
He was first seen in the West End about 11 a.m. and remained under police surveillance until around 2:30 p.m.
"The guy is walking around in broad daylight on Christmas Eve. I think what he did was irrational and irresponsible," Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said Monday night. "It was not the right time to send that type of message."
"He didn't violate any laws, but it also doesn't make it right," Sauschuck said.
The rifle that the man was carrying is equipped with a "high capacity magazine," capable of holding as many as 30 rounds, Sauschuck said.
Since the officers could not legally inspect the weapon, they had no way of knowing whether it was loaded, he said.
Sauschuck said the man never mentioned Newtown in his conversation with the officers, but, "I don't think the timing of this was an accident."
The shootings in Connecticut have renewed the nationwide debate over gun control and gun owners' rights.
Sauschuck said the man -- described as being in his 20s -- is believed to have recorded his encounter with officers.
Open-carry gun advocates have been known to post videos of their encounters with police on YouTube.
Even the president of the Maine Open Carry Association said the man's stroll through Portland was misguided.
Shane Belanger, a college student who said he is disbanding the association, said, "We do not agree with the open carry of rifles or shotguns or long guns of any type. ...
"How are you going to be able to help anyone if you have a rifle slung over your shoulder?"
Belanger, whose group organized an event in 2010 that led to a gathering of open-carry advocates on Back Cove, said he believes that a trained open-carry handgun owner is the best defense against someone who tries to commit violence.
"Yes, it's your right to carry, but you are not accomplishing anything (with a rifle) as opposed to carrying a properly holstered handgun," he said Monday night from Arizona, where he moved recently.
Belanger said he has no idea who the man with the assault rifle is.
"If I had known, I would have told him not to do it," Belanger said.
Tom Franklin, president of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence, said Monday's spectacle was an attempt by gun advocates to "normalize" the use of guns in society.
In addition to "scaring the daylights out of people," the incident reflects poorly on Maine, Franklin said.
"It's confrontational and nothing more than an attempt to elevate the status of guns in our society," Franklin said. "If I were a gun owner, I'd be embarrassed by an event like this."
Sauschuck said he was puzzled by the incident.
"This gentleman was trying to send a message that guns are not scary," the chief said.
"But if that's the message, then it's obviously the wrong kind of message to be sending at this time."
Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: