By Matt Byrne
A group of Maine police chiefs plans to ask the Legislature to tighten the state law that allows people to carry guns openly in Maine.
Several chiefs, including Portland's, are scheduled to meet Jan. 22 to discuss changing the law in response to an incident in which a man carried an assault rifle through several Portland neighborhoods on the day before Christmas.
The sight of the man and his gun, just 10 days after a man with a similar gun killed 26 people in an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., prompted dozens of calls to Portland police.
Police responded to the calls and talked to the man, later identified as 24-year-old Justin Dean, who eventually went home without incident.
The officers lacked any legal authority to determine whether the gun was loaded, whether it complied with the federal ban on automatic weapons, or even whether Dean possessed the rifle legally, said Police Chief Michael Sauschuck.
"We can ask anything, but it's purely voluntary. The individual doesn't have to say anything to us. They could literally just keep walking," Sauschuck said. "There will be some additional conversations around any changes to that (open-carry law) over the next couple of weeks."
The open-carry movement has gained traction nationally in recent years. In Portland, gun rights advocates have held public rallies and demonstrations in support of the law, firearms at their sides.
Maine is among 35 states in which it is legal to carry a gun openly without a permit or license, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. A permit is needed to legally carry a concealed gun in Maine.
It is too soon to know what changes the police chiefs may ask for, said Sauschuck. He expects at least three other chiefs -- from Oakland, York and South Portland -- to attend.
Gun control advocates said the incident in Portland illustrates the need for stricter laws, and for avenues of recourse for police who respond to calls from alarmed residents.
"(Dean) caused a lot of anxiety for people," said Cathie Whittenburg, spokeswoman for States United to Prevent Gun Violence.
She said open-carry advocates represent a minority in the gun-rights community, and suggested that municipalities be allowed to craft their own open-carry laws.
Currently in Maine, state law supersedes local ordinances, Whittenburg said.
Jeff Weinstein, a gun-rights advocate from Yarmouth, said he vigorously supports the right to bear arms, including the right to carry a weapon for self-defense.
But he said open-carry rules should balance an individual's liberty with a police department's responsibility to ensure public safety. He said he hopes he will be invited to the chiefs' discussion.
"Discretion plays a role in the exercise of any right," said Weinstein. "I saw that (Christmas Eve incident) as an unnecessary display of the right to open carry, which obviously served to scare a lot of people."
Weinstein, who made headlines in December for suggesting that teachers in Maine be armed to prevent attacks such as the one in Newtown, said he was exasperated by Dean's choice to walk the streets with a rifle.
Dean, a college student who said he left the Army in July after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, has said he is not an activist and was not trying to make a political statement when he carried the loaded rifle over his shoulder from the West End to Parkside and along the Back Cove Trail.
He did not return phone and email messages Friday seeking comment.
During his walk, 65 people phoned police to notify them of an armed man. Sauschuck said residents and neighborhood associations expressed disbelief that police could not require the man to identify himself or inspect the gun to assess whether he posed a threat.
Tom Franklin, president of the board of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence, said some gun advocates see openly carrying a firearm as the most declarative expression of Second Amendment rights.
Bill Harwood, who founded Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence, echoed his colleague and described the open-carry trend as a byproduct of the nation's complicated relationship with firearms.
"This is part of the cultural war that's at the base of the gun control debate," Harwood said.
Staff Writer Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at: