NORRIDGEWOCK — Michael Smith, wearing a red shirt and jeans, stood against the kitchen sink in his Ray Nors Drive home, eating frozen pizza.
“It’s gotten a lot of attention and I don’t understand why,” Smith said. “I don’t even know why this happened to me. I’m not someone with views about guns that I want to rattle off.”
Later, his girlfriend, Mindy, cajoled him into lifting his shirt to once again show what all the fuss was about: the lifesize 9-mm pistol tattooed on the right side of his stomach.
“I don’t know what the big deal is,” he said, looking down at the ink art.
Smith, 40, said he has been overwhelmed by the attention since police woke him up Tuesday. State police and sheriff’s deputies came to Smith’s house after workers contracted by Central Maine Power to clear trees near power lines on his property reported they’d been threatened.
Smith, who works a night shift, awoke to loud noise at around 10 a.m. and opened his front door — shirtless — to tell the workers from Lucas Tree Experts to leave.
The workers mistook Smith’s tattoo for a gun stuck in his waistband and believed he had threatened them.
Police arrived at Smith’s house with assault rifles and asked him through a megaphone to come out.
They said later Smith had not threatened anyone and it was a misunderstanding.
THE GUN TATTOO
Smith’s story, first reported and photographed by the Morning Sentinel, went viral the next day after it was picked up by several national media outlets, igniting a flood of Facebook sharing and online comments weighing in on everything from gun rights and civil liberties, to the police response and actions of CMP contract workers.
On Thursday, Smith said he has gotten phone calls from news agencies in Boston, around the country and in Europe.
Certain topics are always hot issues and will generate debate, said Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism education and training center in St. Petersburg, Fla. Those include both gun rights, because the issue pits personal rights against the government, and personal expression, he said.
“Tattoos are a form of personal expression, and that is something that is always going to generate discussion,” Tompkins said. “People, especially those in more rural areas of the U.S., tend to be extraordinarily passionate about their gun rights — anything they perceive to be an infringement of those rights or discrimination against someone who might be a gun owner.”
The gun is one of several tattoos that Smith has on his body, including flames that extend from his wrist to the elbow of his right arm. Many online commenters have also pointed to two tattoos on his left arm that appear to resemble the Nazi Iron Eagle, an eagle perched atop a swastika, and the Iron Cross, a military symbol that was also used by the Nazi party.
Smith said he had no comment on those tattoos, except that he got them more than 10 years ago.
“I didn’t go outside to brag about my tattoos or get my picture taken,” he said.
Smith said he owns several guns and enjoys shooting. He added that firearm safety is a priority for him.
The quirkiness of the life-sized gun tattoo, which was inked at Detail & Color Tattoo in Skowhegan, is one of the main reasons Smith has gotten so much attention.
Smith said he got the tattoo because it is a replica of gun he used to own and “looks like the ones the cops carry.”
“A realistic gun tattoo is so rare that the situation is really unique,” said Michael Socolow, associate professor at the University of Maine Department of Communications and Journalism.
STORY GOES VIRAL
Smith’s story and photo got picked up by the Huffington Post, New York Daily News and the Associated Press, and appeared in newspapers in Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
“For us it was just the fact that the photographer was on the scene and got those amazing photos of Mr. Smith outside his house with the sheriff’s deputy,” said Eric Lach, a reporter at Talking Points Memo, a liberal web-based political news site that prominently promoted Smith’s story. “I don’t think the reason this story went viral or was widely picked up necessarily ties into the gun rights issue, although obviously those are important issues.”
For others, Smith’s story raised questions about the armed police response and gun phobia.
In Maine, it’s legal to carry a gun on your own property or in public without a permit if it’s not concealed, except in places that are prohibited by law, like courts and schools.
“Of course, everyone overreacted,” Smith said. “People shouldn’t be scared over a tattoo, or even a real gun. I was on my own property and never even left the threshold of my home. I have the right to have a gun, even without a permit, as long as I am not threatening people.”
Smith said he was shouting at the workers because they were far away and the in their truck were rolled up. He wishes they would have knocked on his door to let him know what they were doing.
State police, however, said Smith’s behavior was alarming enough that workers felt threatened.
“I think there is a certain percentage of the population that has an unwarranted fear of guns, almost to the point of a phobia,” said Leslie Ohmart, president of the Pine Tree Rifle and Pistol Association, an organization that supports pistol and rifle use with an emphasis on the safe handling of firearms. “They are in the presence of a gun and have a really exaggerated response, like just having the gun present will create some sort of a dangerous event.”
Meanwhile, police maintain that their response was appropriate and said there was a verbal exchange between Smith and the workers that gave them cause for concern and prompted their armed response.
“Having a gun on your property is not an issue,” said Maine Department of Public Safety spokesman Steve McCausland. “The issue was the fact they thought they saw a gun in a verbal confrontation with a homeowner, and that obviously heightens the concern for public safety.”
McCausland said the tree workers called in a report that harsh words were exchanged between Smith and the workers that made them concerned about their safety, and it was that report that brought police to Smith’s home. The situation, initially reported as a possible standoff with police, ended quickly when officers determined Smith’s tattoo had been mistaken for a real gun. Smith was not charged.
A spokesman for Lucas Tree Experts, which is based in Portland, said the company has no comment.
Maine State Police do not keep track of how many gun complaints are reported, said McCausland.
Even so, there have been a handful of recent cases in central Maine in which tensions about guns in public have made headlines.
In February, a manager of Prompto 10-Minute Oil Change in Waterville was charged with reckless conduct after he pulled a loaded handgun on co-workers. Police at the time said George Spencer, 43, of Clinton was “fooling around.”
He is scheduled to appear in Kennebec County Superior Court April 15 on a class C felony count of reckless conduct, which carries up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
In January, an Auburn student was suspended from riding the school bus after carrying a toy gun and making mention of a rifle.
In November, police responded to a report of a man with a gun walking over the Two Cent Bridge in Waterville, but the gun was not loaded and the man was walking from his mother’s house to his girlfriend’s house in Winslow.
A spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine said the organization has not been contacted by Smith and doesn’t have concerns that his rights were violated.
“From what we know, police were following up on reports that an individual may have made threats with a gun,”said Rachel Healy, director of communications for Maine’s ACLU. “As soon as they realized it was a misunderstanding, they left him alone. Based on that information, we don’t have concerns that the individual’s rights were violated.”
Smith, though, said he feels like police were ready to shoot at him without knowing all the details of the situation.
“Why couldn’t they come to my door and talk to me like a human being?” Smith said. “I didn’t do anything wrong. I wasn’t waving a pistol around or shooting it off.”
Rachel Ohm — 612-2368 firstname.lastname@example.org