January 5, 2013

Police chiefs want tougher laws on carrying firearms in public

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A group of Maine police chiefs plans to ask the Legislature to tighten the law allowing people to openly carry guns in Maine.

Several chiefs, including Portland's, are scheduled to meet Jan. 22 to discuss tweaking the law after a man carried an assault rifle through several Portland neighborhoods on Christmas Eve. The sight of the man and his gun just days after a similar weapon was used to kill 27 people in Newtown, Conn., prompted dozens of calls to Portland's police department.

Police responded to the calls and talked to the man, later identified as Justin Dean, who eventually went home without incident. But officers did not have the legal authority to determine whether the gun was loaded, if it complied with a federal ban on automatic weapons or even whether Dean possessed the rifle legally, said Portland 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."

Oakland Police Chief Michael Tracy, head of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said he is one of the chiefs who is "going to have a conversation."

He has no firm opinion about what happened in Portland, or whether he would recommend legislative changes. "I'm kind of waiting until we have that conversation," he said.

Augusta Police Chief Robert Gregoire, who is not one of the chiefs taking part in the discussion, said Friday that the chief's association has talked about trying to alter open carry laws for years.

Gregoire said people in other states take more advantage of the open carry laws -- in Maine it is still a relatively rare occurrence to see someone walking down the street with a gun strapped to the hip. When it happens, it creates alarm and generates calls to police, Gregoire said.

"You drop everything when there is a guy with an assault weapon walking down the roadway," he said. "It causes an unnecessary response. You have to investigate to try and determine if this person is a danger to the public. You can't wait for something to happen."

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 that allow residents to openly carry a gun 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 Maine chiefs may ask for, according to Sauschuck. He expects at least three other chiefs -- from Oakland, York and South Portland -- to attend.

Gun control advocates said the Christmas Eve incident 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 enthusiasts represent a minority in the gun rights community and suggested that municipalities be allowed to craft their own open carry laws. In Maine, state law supersedes local legislation.

Jeff Weinstein, a gun rights advocate from Yarmouth, said he supports the right for people to have guns, including the right to carry a weapon for self defense. But Weinstein said open carry rules should balance a person's liberty with the police department's responsibility to ensure public safety. He said he hopes he will be invited to the chiefs' discussion.

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