Portland cookout stresses gun rights

Posted April 25, 2010, at 9:28 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — About 75 gun rights supporters — most of them wearing side arms — gathered in a public park to exercise their Second Amendment rights Sunday, enjoying hamburgers and hot dogs as joggers trotted by and a small group of demonstrators gathered nearby.

Shane Belanger, a University of Southern Maine student who organized the display of guns, which included a machine gun mounted on a jeep, said the aim wasn’t to frighten anyone. Instead, he said, the goal was simply to show that people have a constitutional right to bear arms.

“A right unexercised is a right lost,” Belanger said as the gas grill warmed up on a sunny afternoon.

“We’re law-abiding citizens just having a barbecue.”

Dave Nelson of Gorham brought his restored olive drab 1951 Willys jeep with an operable .30-caliber machine gun mounted in the back and a box of ammunition. He said he doesn’t like what’s happening in the country when it comes to work ethic and government intrusion into people’s lives.

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“Things are changing drastically,” said Nelson, who wore a 9 mm handgun in a holster. “The government owns too many things. It’s trying to control people.”

Some critics were incredulous.

“Where does it stop? You’re carrying a .38 on your hip. The next one’s carrying .45,” said Marine veteran Walter McKertich, 73, of Portland. “If I get a 105 Howitzer, is that OK? They want everything. They don’t want any controls whatsoever.”

Another veteran, Norm Rasulis of Peaks Island, joined the group protesting the display of guns.

“I’ve seen no reason to carry [a handgun] since I left the service,” he said.

Maine has fairly liberal gun laws, and the Legislature doesn’t let municipalities regulate guns. Nonetheless Dan Skolnik, chairman of the City Council’s public safety committee, said he would like to see the city have the right to require permits for people to display their guns in public.

“Anywhere in the country, cities and towns ought to be able to regulate when people are walking around with a loaded weapon,” Skolnik said.

The gathering in Portland is the latest in a series of such open-carry events nationwide.

For the most part, police kept the two groups apart. A few people discussed their differences, and the chats generally were civil.

Belanger, the student organizer, didn’t wear a gun. Neither did Peter Keef, another gun rights supporter. They said they were happy to have both sides air their views.

“I’m glad that they have the right to do that,” said Keef of Casco, motioning to the counterdemonstrators. “I’m glad we live in a country where that’s possible.”

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