May 21, 2018
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In a well armed state, there's concern and debate

By John Holyoke, BDN Staff

Editor’s Note: The year began with a buying spree of guns and ammunition in Maine by those afraid of increased government regulation under President Barack Obama. It is ending with questions about how a Newport man described as mentally ill by his mother was able to possess a gun he allegedly used to kill his father. In a special five-part series the Bangor Daily News examines guns in our state — ownership, business, recreation, crime and the law.

Art Wheaton sits in his well-appointed study, animal mounts on the walls, a gun case full of shining shotguns nearby, and begins talking about one of his favorite topics: Guns.

Wheaton is a retired executive of a national firearms company, an avid gun collector, hunter and a Maine guide. And he’s adamant in his belief that giving ground to those who would limit his right to bear arms is a bad idea.

“I have come to a strong belief that firearms and Maine are inseparable,” Wheaton said.

Polls show a lot of Mainers share Wheaton’s belief. A nationwide survey conducted by the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this decade concluded that 40.5 percent of Maine households contained at least one gun, ranking the state 24th nationally. There are 696,000 households in Maine, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

An online survey conducted this month by the Bangor Daily News, which serves a largely rural area, showed 76.6 percent of more than 1,600 respondents owned at least one gun.

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There is no way to determine the exact number of guns owned by Mainers. No state agency tracks it, which is the way many gun owners like it.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives can trace gun sales through licensed dealers, but is prevented by law from keeping a database of gun owners.

In a state of 1.3 million people, a conservative estimate would put the number of guns at several hundred thousand.

A hot topic

Across the nation, in courtrooms and legislative conference rooms, barrooms and living rooms, the issues surrounding the ownership and use of firearms are eliciting plenty of debate.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments soon on whether a municipality has the right to ban guns, a ruling with major implications that could be felt in Maine, as well as in larger urban areas.

In Maine, a rural state with a long tradition of gun ownership, the debate might appear moot. In 1987 the state’s voters approved a constitutional amendment stating: “Every citizen has a right to keep and bear arms and this right shall never be questioned.”

But ask Mainers today and you’ll hear gun owners say despite tradition and constitutional protection they are nervous about the future. Police and advocacy groups say they are concerned about gun violence, even as Maine’s overall crime rate remains among the lowest in the nation.

Police in southern New England states and in Canada complain that more crimes in their locales are being committed with guns bought in Maine, the firearms sometimes purchased by girlfriends or wives for felons who can’t buy them.

Some in Maine say their loved ones would still be alive save for a firearm that should never have been sold to the loved one or others whose actions caused those deaths. Others say guns make them safer, or play an essential role in their hunting or shooting or collecting pastimes.

In some rural parts of Maine, guns are viewed as everyday tools that contribute to a more self-sufficient way of life.

When it comes to guns, one quickly learns, there are enough opinions in Maine to go around.

Gun owners concerned

The gun climate in Maine, some say, isn’t nearly as contentious as it is in other, more urban states. But there’s an awareness that times change, and so do attitudes.

Wheaton, 68, is the former vice president of marketing and sales for Remington Arms, one of the nation’s leading gun producers. Wheaton grew up in the township of Grand Lake Stream and now spends several months a year living in Forest City in Washington County, where he works as a registered Maine Guide.

Wheaton has lived in various places across the country, and during a nearly 40-year career in the firearms industry had ample opportunity to learn the attitudes of people in diverse areas.

“My sense for it at this juncture is that [the gun debate] has not reached the fever pitch that it has elsewhere in our country,” Wheaton said. “But [proposed limitations on gun ownership] is something to be wary of. It’s something not to cave in to and to be thought through very carefully as to what it means.”

On the other side of the issue, Tom Franklin of Portland, president of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence, said his group of about 500 members doesn’t want to take away the right to legally own guns in Maine. Passing certain laws that he terms “very moderate,” such as increasing the age at which a person can buy a gun without parental consent — now 18 for those purchasing rifles and shotguns, 21 for those buying handguns — make sense, he said.

“Yes, I draw some lines,” Franklin said. “That’s the mark of a civilized society. You draw some lines and you make them better.”

Wheaton said the election of Democrat Barack Obama as president has fueled concern among many gun owners who fear changes in laws, or the appointment of Supreme Court justices who won’t be gun-friendly.

“It’s obvious by the current political climate, what seems to be going on in the country,” Wheaton said.

“The gun owners are scared. They’re very concerned that the current administration in Washington, at the first opportunity, is going to add more restrictions on gun ownership.”

To Wheaton, doing so would create an atmosphere that would change a state that needs no such tinkering.

Wheaton said that, like many Mainers, he grew up around guns and as a young child was taught their proper use.

“It was not unfamiliar with me to see my dad carry a rifle and go deer hunting and whatnot,” he said. “It just became a way of life.”

After school on many days, Wheaton was allowed to hunt. While a student at the University of Maine, he thought nothing of storing his hunting rifle or shotgun at his fraternity house.

How much have times changed?

According to Noel March, University of Maine director of public safety, firearms are now prohibited in university buildings, and on its property, including in vehicles parked on that property. That policy does not extend to the school’s fraternities, however.

Gun owners at UMaine — students, faculty or visitors — can store their weapons at the public safety headquarters and have access to them 24 hours a day, free of charge. That has been the case for more than 20 years, March said.“The lifestyle that I grew up in is not mainstream anymore,” Wheaton said, explaining that when he was a child, he and his peers grew up around guns and were taught about their responsible and safe use. Today, especially in more urban settings, people are introduced to guns later in life, if at all, he said.

The passage of years and a seemingly inexorable urban sprawl into formerly rural areas of the state have changed the mindset in parts of Maine, Wheaton said.

But he’s not willing to give up his view that the Maine he grew up in and the traditions he cherished should not change radically.

“People that have come to Maine to enjoy life as it ought to be have to recognize that the reasons that Maine is what it is is because of its rich heritage and tradition,” Wheaton said. “Whether it be in the Maine guide community, whether it be in our long and deep history of hunting and shooting and the out of doors, whether it be camping or canoeing or whatnot, firearms are an integral part of that.”

Common ground

While Wheaton doesn’t believe that people such as him — National Rifle Association members who believe deeply that the Second Amendment to the Constitution allows them the right to bear arms — can afford to compromise with gun control advocates, he does say there is a bit of common ground the two camps share.

“The one area I think the anti-gun folks and the pro-gun folks are clear on: Nobody ever wants anybody to get hurt with one,” Wheaton said. “I think it’s very clear across the industry, and it’s hard to get to the table on that issue, but I believe it’s fact. I’ve known both sides of the coin. Nobody ever wants anybody to get hurt.”

Gun safety courses
readily available

Firearms safety courses are offered through the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s education program and through commercial businesses.

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Franklin, a lawyer, said he used to hunt, and draws a distinction between some traditional uses and the problems he says his group wants to solve by some restrictions on guns.

“I think the gun-control movement in Maine has much more in common with Maine traditional hunters and sportsmen than they realize,” Franklin said. “Probably more than we realize, too.”

Franklin said the traditional uses of gun owners are not the target of his group’s efforts.

“By and large [guns] are in responsible hands. I think what we are trying to do in Maine is to really give voice to the old Maine guide, hunting and fishing tradition of which Maine is rightly proud, which says gun owners are responsible,” he said. “[Gun owners] are responsible for observing landowners rights, gun owners are responsible for safety and not shooting each other. And gun owners are responsible for passing on their guns to people who use them responsibly. Where Mainers resist is making that personal obligation a legal one.”

Background checks

Franklin said the problem that Maine faces isn’t among responsible gun owners who buy firearms the right way, but with those who take advantage of the fact that personal sales of weapons aren’t subject to background checks.

In sporting goods stores and gun shops, potential buyers of modern firearms must pass an instant federal check — administered by phone by all federally licensed firearms dealers — to make sure that the buyer is allowed to possess a gun. People are prevented from possessing firearms for a number of reasons, including being under indictment or convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term longer than one year; being subject to a restraining order from harassing or stalking; or having been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.

Allowing personal sales to skirt that requirement, Franklin maintains, is a serious problem the state needs to address. According to a 2009 Omnibus Poll, 88 percent of Mainers seem to agree: That’s the percentage of respondents who said they favored changing Maine law to require criminal background checks before people can purchase handguns at gun shows.

Guns bought through private sales, Franklin says, end up on the streets of Maine and beyond, and too often in the hands of others who shouldn’t own them, where they can be used in illegal activities including drug dealing.

“Maine’s lax gun laws are attracting drug dealers to come here, sell their drugs and pick up some cheap guns,” Franklin said. “Those are the kinds of tourists we are encouraging to come to Maine.”

U.S. Attorney Paula Silsby said a program called Project Safe Neighborhoods has led to a dramatic rise in federal prosecution of gun crimes in Maine, from eight cases in fiscal year 2000 to 52 cases in 2007.

“We’ve engaged a vast array of stakeholders on a common issue to take guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them and reducing gun violence,” Silsby said.

As for the much-publicized “gun show loophole,” by which those who wouldn’t be legally allowed to purchase firearms can buy them from gun enthusiasts at unregulated shows, Franklin said Maine’s promoters are focusing on eliminating that practice.

“I think gun show sponsors in Maine, which are often nonprofit groups or rod and gun clubs, are becoming more and more responsible in closing those shows to private sellers,” Franklin said. “That’s wonderful. That’s exactly what they should be doing. We applaud that.”

Assault weapon ownership raises debate

One of the more constant debates about guns often revolves around the ownership of “assault weapons,” which were banned for 10 years beginning in 1994. The federal law was allowed to “sunset” five years ago. Gun owners worry it will rise again.

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That’s not to say he wouldn’t like to see some changes. The sale of so-called “assault weapons,” which Wheaton says are being demonized because of their appearance, not their function, is one point of contention.

“I loved guns [growing up]. Guns are interesting. But I honestly don’t understand why assault weapons or handguns are interesting. I just view handguns and assault weapons as bizarre hobbies,” Franklin said.

Charlie Rumsey of Bangor is a certified NRA instructor who helps organize the Bangor Gun Show for the Penobscot County Conservation Association.

He’s proud of the measures his club takes to remove the “gun show loophole” from its annual show.

All vendors are federally licensed firearms dealers, and organizers do not allow private sales at the show, in the hallways, or in the parking lot. Rumsey said show staffers are always on the lookout for such activity.

He’s also among the gun owners who are watching Augusta and Washington, D.C., carefully, and remaining vigilant against gun control efforts.

“I do think Americans should be concerned. If you, for example, nominate and approve Supreme Court justices who have already stated that they don’t believe that there is an individual right to keep and bear arms, that the Second Amendment is not necessarily there, you should worry about that,” Rumsey said.

“I think our founding fathers were pretty specific. They didn’t have a lot of weasel language when they put [the Constitution] together,” Rumsey said. “The Bill of Rights is the Bill of Rights. It’s a pretty clear statement of what your rights are.”

For Rumsey, one of those rights allows him to keep and bear arms. And he defends the Second Amendment vigorously.

“Yes, I’m a firearms aficionado, and yes, there are people who can just not stand the sight of them,” Rumsey said. “What I say to that, probably, is ‘Fine. You don’t have to like them. It’s about your freedom. You are free to not like guns. But why would you care about me? If I am a legal firearms owner, why would you feel badly toward me?”

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