When officials in Waterville approved a plan last year to move City Council meetings into a new downtown common space owned by Colby College, they didn’t foresee a change to the rules about whether residents can bring guns to meetings.

Now some residents say the college’s policy against allowing guns in the Chace Community Forum is a safety concern and a reason for the city to change venues again for council meetings.

It’s not the first time the issue of whether residents should be able to bring guns to public meetings has come up in Maine. Officials in other municipalities as well as state lawmakers have grappled over the years with the debate over whether local officials should be allowed to regulate more tightly the presence of guns at public meetings and in town or city spaces.

And at least one gun safety group and some government officials are hopeful legislation can be introduced this year that would allow municipalities to make individual decisions about whether to allow firearms at public proceedings.

State law currently does not allow municipalities to prohibit people from bearing arms at public meetings or on municipally owned property.

“As an organization, we’re focused on empowering municipalities to make that choice,” said Geoff Bickford, executive director of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, who said the group is working with a state lawmaker on introducing legislation this session. “It goes back to the long-standing principle of local control. Each town should be able to decide for themselves what’s best for them. In some parts of the state there’s more of a tradition (around gun ownership) or hunting. That should not dictate what the policy is in Portland, Lewiston or Auburn, where that’s not the tradition and not what people desire.”

At the same time, there are those who say residents should have the right to bear arms legally at all government meetings.

The Waterville City Council meets in the Chace Community Forum, on the first floor in the new Colby dorm downtown, on Oct. 2, 2018. Some residents say the college’s policy against allowing guns on the property is a safety concern and a reason for the city to change venues for council meetings. Morning Sentinel/Michael G. Seamans

“Citizens might want to exercise a fundamental civil right, that is, bearing arms – while exercising other fundamental rights, that is, attending or participating in a local government meeting,” said Kim Moulton, a member of the board of directors of Gun Owners of Maine, an organization dedicated to promoting Mainers’ gun rights.

“One does not give up other civil rights to attend a Waterville public meeting, and it is not apparent why one should give up the right to go lawfully armed at such a meeting.”

The vast majority of municipalities in Maine hold public meetings on town- or city-owned property as opposed to private property, said Maine Municipal Association Executive Director Steven Gove, although he said it is not something the association keeps track of.

Waterville previously held its council meetings at The Center, a privately owned downtown building adjoined to City Hall, but City Manager Mike Roy said there was no policy the city was ever made aware of there regarding firearms.

That changed when the council recently began holding meetings in Colby College’s Bill & Joan Alfond Main Street Commons building, where the Chace Community Forum is located and firearms are prohibited.

Some municipalities, such as Augusta, have sought to change the rules for public meetings and all government-owned buildings.

Julian Payne, a Waterville resident who spoke on the issue at a recent council meeting, said he knows of at least three people who frequently carry concealed weapons at council meetings.

“I think they take it everywhere,” he said. “It’s just part of their philosophy.”

However, he also said during an effort last year to recall Mayor Nick Isgro over comments the mayor made on social media about a high school shooting survivor and other topics, meetings were contentious and it was an added incentive for people to carry guns.

“I never worried about being shot in a meeting, but I have had people come up and they were restrained from punching me in a meeting before,” Payne said.

Though he personally hasn’t packed a gun at meetings, Payne said he feels others should have the right to do so.

“If you don’t believe in the right to carry at these meetings, then you need to do the impossible and revoke the Second Amendment or Maine’s carry laws,” Payne said.

“While we have these, there shouldn’t even be a debate over whether we can bring them to meetings.”


Comments are not available on this story.