December 23, 2012

AR-15 rifles rare in Maine, firearms enthusiasts report

While guns are part of the state's culture, few people own the semi-automatic assault-style rifles.

By Deirdre Fleming dfleming@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

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Fred Wiegleb, president of the 1,000-member Scarborough Fish and Game Association, carries his Beretta DT10 shotgun at the firing range Thursday. Wiegleb said he never sees semi-automatic assault-style firearms at the club.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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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.

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