PORTLAND – Gun control advocates are organizing a counter-demonstration in response to an “open carry” firearm event planned for Sunday.

Both events are scheduled for 2 p.m. at the Preble Street parking lot near Back Cove, across from the Hannaford supermarket.

Gun control advocates say that even though carrying a holstered weapon in public is allowed under state law, they don’t think it’s safe or responsible in Maine’s largest city.

“We’re not going to normalize antisocial behavior,” said Dan Skolnik, a city councilor who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee.

The open-carry event reflects a national movement in which gun owners are asserting their constitutional right to bear arms. The counter-rally may start a broader dialogue about gun control in Maine, a debate that Skolnik and other organizers hope could reach the state Legislature next year.

Maine prohibits communities from regulating firearms and ammunition. Cathie Whittenburg, director of the New England Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, said she would like to see that law amended so communities such as Portland could have some local control.

“It’s not about strapping a Glock on your hip and walking down Congress Street,” she said of the existing state law.

Portland once had an ordinance that prohibited openly carrying a weapon in the city between sunset and sunrise. But the Legislature passed a law in 1989 that pre-empted municipal gun control, in response to an effort by then-Portland Police Chief Michael Chitwood to enforce the ordinance.

This weekend’s events are being planned at a time of renewed debate over the role of firearms in modern American society.

In California, protesters carrying guns and rifles spoke out Monday against a proposed law to ban people from openly carrying guns. In Virginia, armed gun-rights supporters rallied at a national park Monday in response to a new federal law allowing guns in national parks.

In Maine, lawmakers last month modified a bill that would have continued to outlaw firearms in Acadia National Park. The final measure relaxed proposed restrictions and allows people with concealed-weapons permits to bring guns into the park.

The Legislature has adjourned until January, and residents will elect a new governor and many new lawmakers before then. So it’s too soon, Skolnik and Whittenburg said, to know whether there would be any support for legislation to allow communities to regulate firearms.

“Realistically, it’s hard to do,” Whittenburg said. “No one wants to go up against the gun lobby.”

As gun control advocates see it, Maine’s rural heritage and tradition of carrying guns is out of place in a modern, urban setting. That’s especially true in an era when well-publicized mall and campus shootings have led many people to fear loaded weapons in society.

But gun-rights supporters counter that armed citizens make communities safer, by deterring potential criminals. They say restrictions affect only residents who abide by the law, not the criminals who prey on defenseless victims.

Caught in the middle of the growing debate is Portland’s police chief, James Craig.

Crime isn’t the major issue, Craig said, it’s public safety. Craig said he’s more concerned about a gun accidentally firing if people are walking on Congress Street with holstered handguns.

“I’m not comfortable with it,” Craig said, “but I have an obligation to support the Constitution.”

Generally speaking, Craig said, he wouldn’t oppose an effort in the Legislature to allow Portland to control guns, but it’s hard to form an opinion without knowing the details of any proposal.

For all the media attention the two events are getting, it’s hard to say how many people will participate Sunday. Neither side is predicting a big turnout.

The organizer of the open-carry event, Shane Belanger, said he has noted 23 confirmed attendees on an Internet forum devoted to the topic, and 16 people who say they may come.

Belanger said he welcomes participation by the anti-gun groups. The resulting discussion could help both sides explain their positions, he said.

“I think it’s great,” he said. “They’re getting their voices heard. That’s America.”


Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: [email protected]


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