PORTLAND — Police Chief Michael Sauschuck on Wednesday said a change in state law allowing residents to carry concealed handguns without permits in public will make the state a more dangerous place.
“When this legislation goes into effect tomorrow – police officers and sheriffs around the state – their lives will be in danger,” Sauschuck said. “Our citizens, their lives will be in danger.”
The law change, championed by Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, went into effect Thursday. It allows anyone older than 21 who is not otherwise prohibited by state or federal law from possessing a firearm to carry a concealed handgun without a permit. Those 18 to 20 years old who are either veterans or on active duty with the U.S. armed forces may also carry concealed handguns without permits under the law change.
Sauschuck said Wednesday that his officers on Tuesday, Oct. 12, charged a man with carrying a concealed handgun without a permit. Peter Shepard, 58, was carrying a loaded .45-caliber handgun at the Northgate Shopping Plaza.
Sauschuck said police were alerted to Shepard after a report that he was threatening others with the weapon. Sauschuck said while police were unable to locate any victims they did find witnesses who said Shepard had been pointing the gun at the occupants of a car that drove off.
Sauschuck also said it appeared Shepard had altered his handgun with a fluorescent pink paint in order to make it look like a toy or an airsoft pellet gun.
“Mr. Shepard stated to us at the scene that he carried this firearm because he wanted to protect himself from police officers,” Sauschuck said. “So he’s in public with a loaded .45-caliber handgun that is painted to make individuals think that weapon is a toy, and he is carrying that firearm to protect himself from police officers.”
Sauschuck said had the incident with Shepard occurred Thursday, officers would have had no other choice but to return the gun to Shepard and ask him to go home.
“This is the exact situation, as law enforcement, that we are concerned about,” Sauschuck said. “I’m sure our legislators, many of them, are highly intelligent and they are invested in their communities, but the individuals who voted for this bill made the wrong choice.”
Supporters of the law change, including Brakey, say states with laws that allow more individuals to carry concealed handguns with fewer restrictions have proven to have lower overall crime rates than those that don’t.
“Our neighbor Vermont, they have had this in place for 200 years,” Brakey said. “They are the safest state in the nation with the lowest amount of violent crime per capita.”
Brakey said that while Sauschuck may feel the law change is going to make the state more dangerous, he has also heard from individual police officers who feel otherwise.
“I’ve spoken with individual police officers who feel both ways, actually,” Brakey said. “Some are for it, some are against it. There is not one person who can claim to speak for all law enforcement officers; they are individual people with their own sets of views and value systems.”
He said a number of retired law enforcement officers who are now state lawmakers, such as Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, voted for the law change because they did not believe the change would put police officers in any greater danger.
“If (Burns) thought for a single moment that passing this was going to put any law enforcement officer in any additional danger he would not have supported it for a moment, but he was proud to support it,” Brakey said.
Jason Moen, the deputy police chief in Brakey’s hometown of Auburn, said officers did have legitimate concerns over the law change.
Moen said he worries that some who elect to now carry concealed handguns without permits may not be well-educated on Maine’s self-defense laws or on gun safety in general.
“We are also concerned about more guns being on the street, but our officers are trained to treat subjects as armed until they know otherwise,” Moen said. “People need to be clear on the law and if they interact with an officer while carrying concealed unpermitted, they need to communicate that to the officer.”
The law change requires those who are carrying weapons without permits to immediately inform law enforcement when they encounter them that they are carrying a hidden handgun or they could also face a misdemeanor charge.
The change does not allow firearms to be carried in any of the places where they are currently prohibited, including schools or other public buildings such as the State House in Augusta or in any state or federal courts.
The law change keeps in place Maine’s concealed weapons permitting system, which allows anyone who wants a permit to apply and receive one through the Maine State Police or a local police department.
Some may still want permits because it will allow them to carry concealed weapons in other states that require permits and recognize a Maine permit as valid.
Opponents of the change have said removing safety training and the criminal and mental health background checks now required for a concealed handgun permit will make it more likely unstable or dangerous individuals will begin carrying handguns in public.
Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck