Washington County sheriff: Maine’s concealed carry law ‘scares me to death’

Posted Dec. 27, 2012, at 2:29 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 27, 2012, at 6:49 p.m.
Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith
John Clarke Russ | BDN
Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith Buy Photo

ELLSWORTH, Maine — A Winter Harbor doctor’s inadvertently leaving a loaded gun in the bathroom of Ellsworth’s L.L. Bean Outlet was a “blip on the radar” of more than 40 years of military and medical service, said the doctor’s son.

But Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith said Thursday that incidents such as these are a cause for concern amid increasing requests for concealed carry permits in Maine.

“We’ve got thousands of people now with concealed carry permits,” Smith said. “You know, you carry a gun, you’re probably gonna have to take it out of its holster, and this could very easily happen.”

Dr. Benjamin Newman, 72, operates a private practice in Winter Harbor and was contracted by Washington County in June to treat inmates at the jail. He was charged with reckless conduct, a misdemeanor, in Ellsworth on Wednesday after allegedly leaving a loaded Walther 9 mm semiautomatic police pistol in the bathroom of the L.L. Bean Outlet in Ellsworth.

While the doctor carries sheriff’s office identification — which allows him to carry the gun concealed in public — he’s not technically an employee of the county, but more of an independent contractor. Smith said Newman won’t be punished for the incident by the county.

Newman’s son, Ben Newman Jr., said Thursday its “second nature” for his father to carry a gun at all times after years of military service. A retired Navy captain, Dr. Newman served in Vietnam, Desert Storm, and Afghanistan, his son said.

“It’s important to keep this in perspective,” said Newman’s son, who also is the senior Newman’s attorney. “This has never happened before. I’m certain it will never happen again.”

Newman added that his father “recognizes the potentially tragic consequences that could have occurred, and he’s grateful they didn’t. He’s a doctor, and his first commandment is ‘Do no harm.’ He’d never want anyone to be hurt unnecessarily.”

But Sheriff Donnie Smith said potentially dangerous accidents such as Newman’s will only become more common as more Mainers obtain permits to carry concealed weapons. He said it’s only a matter of time before such an incident ends badly.

“I’m a firm believer in the Second Amendment, but I’m getting a little nervous with all the concealed carry,” he said.

While the state doesn’t keep a central record of the number of concealed carry permits issued in Maine, Department of Public Safety spokesman Stephen McCausland said Thursday that the number of applications is growing.

The recent uptick in applications is big enough to have caused a three-month backlog of applications, he said. State Police Lt. David Bowler, who oversees the permitting process for Maine towns without their own police department, told the Sun Journal in March that applications shot up 46 percent between 2008 and 2011.

During daily life, there are plenty of times when someone carrying a gun would need to remove the firearm from its holster, Smith said, such as when using the restroom or trying on clothes in a department store changing room.

It’s easy to forget a gun and create the potential for a dangerous situation, he said, one made even more dangerous because most guns are carried loaded.

Smith said his fears are compounded by Maine’s concealed carry law, which requires permit applicants to “demonstrate a knowledge of handgun safety,” which can be shown by completing any of a myriad third-party gun safety courses.

Those courses presumably include range time, but Smith said the lack of a specific requirement for proficiency with a gun doesn’t sit well with him. Law enforcement officials must qualify as proficient with a firearm, and he said residents should be required to do the same.

“You can’t get a driver’s license that way. You have to show you can drive,” he said. “But the state of Maine gives you a permit to carry a deadly weapon without having to show proficiency with it.”

Whatever his reservations about Maine’s concealed carry law, Smith said he has no doubt that Newman is a competent gun owner who made a simple mistake. Still, he said, :”This is how accidents happen.”

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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