AUGUSTA – Gun-rights and gun-control advocates clashed Thursday at the State House as the two groups brought countering messages to the Legislature.

Advocates from the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, a group that supports stricter gun laws, and Gun Owners of Maine, a gun-rights group, engaged in a brief shouting match in the Hall of Flags prior to a rally planned by the gun-control group.

About 200 gun-control advocates carried signs that read, among other things, “Pencils, not pistols” and “We call B.S.,” while about 75 pro-gun protesters wore National Rifle Association hats and blaze orange shirts that read, “Guns save lives.”

Among the speakers was Pearl Benjamin, a student from Camden Hills Regional High School, who said she and her peers were tired of being ignored by lawmakers as they demanded action and stricter gun laws.

“It’s time for universal background checks,” Benjamin said. “It’s time to ban high-capacity clips. It’s time to raise the minimum age for gun sales to 21. It’s time to ban assault weapons. It’s time to dismantle the manipulative NRA.”

Benjamin noted that students may not yet be able to vote but when they can, they won’t forget.

“Take action while you still can,” she warned, “because if you don’t fit into this new world we are creating, believe me, we will vote you out.”

The gun-control measures Benjamin and other advocates are hoping for have never found any traction in a Legislature that is nearly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

People chant and wave signs on the grand staircase between second and third floors during a gun-control rally Thursday at the State House. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

If anything, Maine laws around gun ownership and use have become more lenient over the last decade, and in 2017 the Legislature passed into law another pro-gun measure that prohibits the state from creating any type of gun registry.

Other bills passed in Maine in the last 10 years include one that eliminated the requirement for a permit to carry a concealed handgun, as well as a bill that allows gun owners to keep their weapon locked in their vehicle in a workplace parking lot.

Omar Andrews, a University of Southern Maine student, a Marine Corps veteran and the leader in a student veterans group, said military-style firearms like those he wielded in the service have no place in a safe American society.

“If you are 18 and you want to fire some weapons, I’ve got some people in dress blues who would love to talk to you,” Andrews said, referencing Marine Corps recruiters.

The massacre of 17 students at a south Florida high school last month has fueled another fierce national debate over gun controls and access to high-powered weapons. That debate is prompting many states to consider new legislation.

A group of counter-protesters from the Gun Owners of Maine, a gun-rights group, chants before a Maine Gun Safety Coalition rally Thursday at the State House. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

This week, State House leaders allowed several bills meant to increase public school security and gun safety to move forward, including a bill that would send as much as $20 million to the state’s Department of Education for security upgrades at schools. Another bill would allow law enforcement to temporarily confiscate firearms from individuals a court has deemed to be a danger to themselves or others.

Additional bills meant to bolster awareness of mental illness and increase the number of mental health counselors with master’s degrees were also accepted for debate. But State House leaders, on split votes, rejected bills that would have given local school districts the option of arming school staff with concealed handguns, as well as a bill that would have banned high-capacity magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

In a split vote leaders also rejected a bill that would have banned the sale of bump stock devices, which can make a semi-automatic weapon fire like automatic machine gun.

House Speaker Sara Gideon addresses the crowd at a gun control rally in August on Thursday. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Todd Tolhurst, president of Gun Owners of Maine, said Maine does not have a firearms safety problem, and he noted that the state was recently ranked the safest in the nation by U.S. News and World Report.

“Maine is the safest state in the country,” Tolhurst said. “We don’t have a crime problem and we certainly don’t have a gun problem.” Tolhurst said the gun controls being pushed for have only produced “bad effects in other states.”

“What they have really accomplished is to disarm the innocent victims and put the predators at an advantage,” Tolhurst said. “We don’t want that here in Maine. We believe we can make people safer simply by allowing them to defend themselves. Allow people not to be a flock but to be a pack. Let the predator attack a pack and see what happens. When they attack a flock a lot of sheep get hurt.”