A man who strolled through Maine's largest city with an assault weapon similar to the one used in the Connecticut elementary school shootings is drawing fire from both gun control and gun rights advocates.
Portland police received more than 65 calls Monday reporting that a young man was walking through the Parkside neighborhood and the Back Cove area with an AR-15-style assault weapon. Justin Dean, 24, insisted he wasn't making any sort of statement but rather had the loaded rifle for protection while exercising his Second Amendment rights.
Dean broke no laws, but advocates on both sides of the gun-control debate said he could have picked a better way to exert his rights than by carrying a weapon in a densely populated neighborhood and on a popular walking path.
"From what I've seen, it seems like he has benign intentions but a tone-deaf ear on an effective way to promote Second Amendment rights," said Robert Henricksen of the Maine Open-Carry Association, a gun-rights group. "I think there are ways to achieve self-defense and Second Amendment rights -- even though he says that isn't one of his goals -- without (carrying around) an AR-15, especially in light of what happened in Connecticut recently."
Dean said he never intended to scare anybody and is surprised by the outcry. He said he's an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, but until Monday had never carried his Daniel Defense M-4 rifle with its 30-round clip around in public.
"I think the Second Amendment is an important right, but I'm not an activist, I'm not a member of the NRA or any group," he said, referring to the National Rifle Association. "In no way was I trying to make a statement."
Police said they began receiving calls at 11 a.m. Monday about a man carrying an AR-15-style weapon while walking down the street.
When police caught up to Dean on a street near his apartment, they determined he wasn't breaking any laws and let him continue on his way. Dean said he then spent the next few hours walking to a post office to mail a letter in an outside mailbox and walking around the 3.5-mile Back Cove walking trail.
Along the way, a couple of people stopped him to talk about the weapon, with one person asking if it was real and if it was legal to carry open firearms, he said. But others stared at him or went out of their way to keep their distance.
Tom Franklin, president of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence, called Dean an "embarrassment" to gun owners and to Maine.
"We aren't gun kooks," Franklin said. "By and large we're very responsible gun owners. But this sort of publicity is bad for gun owners. It's bad for the state of Maine."
Dean's stroll underscores the need for municipalities to have the authority to pass their own local gun control laws, said Portland City Councilor Ed Suslovic, who's hoping to introduce a proposal to the state Legislature in the upcoming session that would allow just that. State law forbids towns and cities from passing local gun control ordinances.
State and federal laws prohibit guns in places such as state buildings, federal buildings and bars, and municipalities should have the same authority to enact ordinances that prohibit weapons in public buildings and at public gatherings, Suslovic said. Gun rights supporters have been known to show up at City Hall with guns at their sides to attend City Council committee meetings when gun control is discussed.
"To my knowledge, the gentleman walking around with the AR-15 assault weapon could have legally walked into Portland City Hall. When you put it into those terms, most people are shocked to learn that's legal," Suslovic said. "And they're even more shocked to discover the city of Portland or any other city can't do anything about it. We are powerless to enact local ordinances limiting the possession or display of firearms."
But allowing each town and city to have its own gun laws would create a mess and make it virtually impossible for gun owners to track, said Jeff Weinstein of the Maine Gun Owners Association Inc. It would be like each town having different traffic laws, he said.
"Politically, frankly it's virtually impossible," Weinstein said. "Gun rights in Maine are jealously guarded by gun owners, and I can assure there will be a massive turnout if such legislation is introduced."