Effort to ban pellet guns, slingshots clears 1st hurdle in South Portland

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council on Monday took the first step toward banning possession and use of pellet guns, slingshots and bows and arrows in public places.

But councilors stopped short of prohibiting use of the weapons on private property.

The 6-1 vote came after more than half a dozen residents spoke against the proposal, decrying it as a violation of their Second Amendment right to bear arms and accusing the council of micromanaging the lives of citizens.

A second reading and final vote is scheduled for Oct. 4.

The proposal to ban nonlethal weapons in public places developed when the city began updating its weapons ordinance, which was not in compliance with state law, according to city attorney Sally Daggett.

The updates were expanded to address pellet guns, slingshots and bows and arrows, because the Police Department sought more authority to respond to complaints about those weapons.

Police Chief Edward Googins said police responded to 33 calls related to guns that shoot either metal or plastic pellets in 2009 and to 11 calls through July of this year.

The most recent call, Googins said, was over Labor Day weekend, when a citizen reported two men were on the porch of a Broadway home aiming guns at passersby.

Googins, who was working at a nearby roadblock, personally responded to the call, only to discover the two men were using pellet guns to shoot at empty cans, “literally feet from passing cars.”

Opponents, however, said the new law would not help police in that situation.

“Laws only really affect law-abiding people,” Stephanie Bourassa said. “Just because you have a law, it’s not going to stop (vandalism). We really just need more parent supervision.”

Gary Crosby said the council is trying to micromanage people’s lives, while Jim Hoy said the rules are a “gateway drug” to enhanced police power.

John Keirstead took issue with a portion of the proposal that includes any instrument or weapon designed to throw or project missiles.

“Right now, I’m carrying a concealed weapon,” Keirstead said, pulling out a drinking straw. “If I put a BB or a pea in it, it is (a concealed weapon). Who hasn’t experienced the terror of sitting in a restaurant, seeing a 7-year-old getting ready to shoot?”

Councilors ultimately decided not to ban the use of these nonlethal weapons on private property, but supported banning their use and open possession on public property, including parks and streets.

“I don’t want to go down to Bug Light Park with kids playing with slingshots,” Councilor Rosemarie De Angelis said. “For me, this is a safety issue.”

Councilor Linda Boudreau presented the council with manufacturer information about air soft guns, which shoot plastic pellets rather than metal ones.

Boudreau said the guns look like real firearms, although their barrels have a red tip – which can be removed, although it is a federal crime to do so. The realistic appearance of the gun could present problems for police responding to calls, she said.

“I can imagine the headline: ‘Person, child shot with toy gun by the Police Department,'” Boudreau said. “It gives me goosebumps to think about.”

She added, “This is just not for the safety of police; this is also for the safety of individuals.”

Other supporters said the rules were needed because of the city’s dense residential neighborhoods.

Councilor Tom Blake, who cast the only vote against the proposal, said the city is over-regulating its citizens with the proposed law, which he contended doesn’t adequately allow for transportation. 

The original wording of the rules would have prohibited someone from taking the weapons home from a store. But the council amended the proposal to allow transportation in an enclosed container.

Mayor Tom Coward noted that state law allows people to openly carry loaded handguns, but the city is making it illegal to openly carry a pellet gun or bow and arrow.

Blake said it is evidence the city is overstepping its boundaries.

“I think we’re going a bit too far,” Blake said. “You can walk down the road with a a loaded revolver, but you can’t with a slingshot.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net