PORTLAND, Maine — More than 100 people braved the arrival of Portland’s first winter snow storm Sunday night to gather in solidarity with grieving families in Newtown, Conn., and in support of stiffer gun control laws.
The organization Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence held a vigil in Monument Square on Sunday, one day after similar gatherings took place in Rockland and multiple other locations across the country.
Friday morning’s horrific mass shooting in Newtown — where 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed 20 6- and 7-year-old children, seven adults and himself — has reinvigorated debate nationwide about gun control.
In Portland, Mayor Michael Brennan was among many Sunday to express frustration with what he described as political stagnation on the issue of stronger restrictions on gun ownership. Brennan noted that high profile mass shootings over the last two years in Arizona, Colorado, Wisconsin and Oregon, among others, were not enough to motivate policy makers to act in advance of Friday’s Connecticut tragedy.
The mayor lamented that Congress allowed an assault weapons ban to expire in 2004 without renewal, and said laws passed by the Maine Legislature in recent years to allow individuals to bring concealed weapons onto the grounds of their workplaces and state parks were “a step backward.”
“Let’s not be here a year from now after another tragedy without having done anything,” Brennan said, adding, “People do not need an assault rifle to hunt or protect themselves.”
Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence board chairman Tom Franklin said Portland has a lot in common with Newtown, including a relatively low crime rate, and that Maine’s largest city is “vulnerable.”
Franklin called for state legislation requiring background checks for individuals buying firearms through gun shows or classifieds magazines, like the popular Uncle Henry’s. He said Mainers must summon up their well-known independent streak and push gun control laws forward against the wishes of powerful gun advocacy groups, such as the National Rifle Association.
“Maine just might be the first state to stand up to the NRA, to say that protecting our children will not be subordinate to fetishism or the pretenses of self defense,” Franklin said. “Maine can show the nation that grief can be turned into action. … We can change frustration into progress and leadership.”
Emmanuel Caulk, superintendent of the Portland Public Schools, urged parents to hug their children, reassure them and answer their questions in the aftermath of the Connecticut shootings.
Caulk, who became emotional when he spoke, said the attack “violated us all.”
“This act has really shaken the core and fabric of our schools,” he said, adding, “It is unimaginable to think as we went about our normal routines Friday morning, this tragedy struck our neighbors in Newtown, Conn.”
Others speaking Sunday in Portland included William Harwood, chairman of the national Brady Center to End Gun Violence, and Rev. Jill Saxby, executive director of the Maine Council of Churches. Portland city councilor and Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence board member Ed Suslovic read the names and ages of the people killed at the Connecticut school.
The crowd of about 100 at the vigil, in which people shielded candles from the wind and snow with gloved hands, included city councilor David Marshall, as well as state Reps. Mark Dion and Ben Chipman, among many others.
While the NRA has been silent since the shooting, issuing no public comment and reportedly canceling a Friday promotion with country music star Colt Ford, other gun rights advocates across the nation have bristled at the notion that the mass murder could have been avoided with tougher gun laws.
Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, said that had teachers and administrators at the Connecticut school been armed, they could have defended themselves against the intruder Friday. Pratt was among many firearm advocates in the country to say the tragedy should motivate policy makers to ensure guns are more readily available to law abiding citizens, so that they can better ward off criminals like Lanza.
“In addition to the gunman, blood is on the hands of members of Congress and the Connecticut legislators who voted to ban guns from all schools in Connecticut — and most other states,” Pratt wrote in a statement posted on the organization website, in part. “They are the ones who made it illegal to defend oneself with a gun in a school when that is the only effective way of resisting a gunman.”