On Thursday, 19 of 21 students in Carter Barthelman’s environmental science class stood up and walked silently out the doors of South Portland High School.

They joined about 500 students – more than half of the student body – in a protest against gun violence. Young people led nearly 3,000 similar demonstrations across the country last week to call for stricter gun laws in the wake of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 students and staff dead.

Barthelman, a 17-year-old senior and an avid hunter, stayed in his seat.

“It’s not out of disrespect to the people who died at all,” Barthelman said. “If it was solely in line with that, I would have absolutely done it. Where the anti-gun part came in is where I didn’t agree.”

Mainers are more likely than most Americans to own guns, and a majority of households in the state have at least one firearm, according to a Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram poll. Still, Maine ranks among the states with the lowest rates of gun deaths. In one survey, many residents also expressed support for increasing restrictions on guns, such as banning semi-automatic rifles and high-capacity magazines.

But in the nationwide debate about firearms, gun owners in Maine say they feel misunderstood and even demonized.

“Just because I’m a gun owner doesn’t mean I’m a violent person,” Barthelman said. “That’s not me. That’s not how I view guns.”

DIVERSE DEMOGRAPHICS AMONG MAINE GUN OWNERS

In the month before the 2016 general election, the University of New Hampshire Survey Center conducted a wide-ranging poll for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. It surveyed more than 700 people and included questions about gun ownership and a referendum on expanded background checks, which ultimately did not pass.

The poll showed a majority of Maine adults – 55 percent – said they have a gun in their household. That is 16 points higher than the response to a national Gallup poll conducted around the same time.

The demographic breakdown of gun owners in Maine was diverse.

Nearly half of the women and two-thirds of the men polled said they have a gun at home. They represented every age group. A person making between $30,000 and $59,999 was just as likely to own a gun as a person earning $100,000 or more.

Gun ownership was significantly higher in central and northern Maine, where at least 60 percent of respondents said they have a gun in their households. By contrast, only 43 percent of residents in southern Maine said they are gun owners.

In rural Benton, near Waterville, Don and Kim Waite recently purchased a handgun for home protection. Their German shepherd dog is getting older, and the nearest police station is 10 minutes away.

“It’s just a different world than I grew up in,” Don Waite said. “I used to feel safe around the house. But you hear about home invasions. I just turned 60, and my wife turns 60 in August. We could be those people that crimes are perpetrated on later because they think we’re old and feeble.”

People who had lived in the state for more than 30 years were more likely to be gun owners than people who had lived in Maine 10 years or less.

Among them is Ed Stanhope, 72, of Auburn. When he was a boy in Lisbon, his mother saved her earnings as a nurse to buy him his first target rifle. He grew up to serve in the military and compete internationally in shooting sports. He still owns firearms and air guns for training and competition.

“I’m just another person trying to get by and trying to be a good citizen,” Stanhope said. “I was blessed to be brought up in a small town in simpler times.”

‘MOST PEOPLE ARE RESPONSIBLE’

Most Mainers use guns for recreation like hunting or target shooting.

Sue Hamilton of Scarborough has also lived in Maine for decades. Now 64, she started trap shooting about 14 years ago. She is now a competitive shooter and an instructor. She sees guns as sporting equipment, like skis or golf clubs.

“It’s up to the people to be responsible, and I think most people are responsible,” Hamilton said.

With 166,000 licensed hunters, Maine has more hunters per capita than most states. Twelve percent of the population held a hunting license last year. Massachusetts, in contrast, has five times the population but only a third of the number of hunters.

Victoria Passmore, a 31-year-old web developer who grew up in Maine, started hunting about six years ago with a former boyfriend. She shot her first deer with a bow and took up rifle hunting soon after. Soon, she was hunting for turkey and other animals every morning and every evening.

Victoria Passmore Photo courtesy of Victoria Passmore

“It wasn’t an obsession to kill an animal,” she said. “It was an obsession to learn as much as I can about this animal.”

Because hunting is a popular tradition in Maine, children and young adults often learn about gun safety at a young age.

Barthelman, the South Portland student, took his first hunter safety course when he was 11. He grew up tracking wildlife in the woods with his dad, and an older cousin taught him how to hunt. Since then, he has harvested turkey, deer, coyotes and other animals with a bow or a rifle.

His father buys the guns because the minimum purchase age in Maine is 18, but it is the teenager’s responsibility to clean and care for them.

“My dad instilled in me a respect with guns,” Barthelman said. “It’s not a toy. It’s a tool.”

‘TERRIFIED OF WHAT’S HAPPENING IN THE WORLD’

Since the Parkland shooting, gun rights have dominated headlines.

News outlets have covered the swell of youth activism across the country and the push for stricter gun laws, including in Florida, where the governor recently signed a new set of regulations. As they watch the news and scan their Facebook newsfeeds, however, gun owners in Maine said they do not feel their experiences are represented.

“You don’t see the person hunting with a firearm,” Passmore said. “You don’t see the woman who carries a firearm because she has to walk down a creepy alley to her car. That’s part of gun ownership, too.”

Waite said he is often discouraged when he defends his views online.

“I don’t get an educated response or a response that is tolerant,” Don Waite said. “I’m a ‘warmonger’ or a ‘hater.’ The people on the other side typically don’t want to listen.”

When Hamilton heard about students protesting after the Parkland shooting, she felt sad for them.

“I think a lot of these kids are being used, and I think it’s kind of cruel,” she said. “I don’t think they really understand. They think they do.”

Mainers are intensely protective of their gun rights. A Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram poll in 2013 showed only 5 percent want to outlaw guns. But the poll also showed 79 percent of Mainers support some restrictions on owning guns. In the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 children and six educators died, a third of Mainers said that massacre made them more likely to support stricter gun control laws.

Still, a ballot question to require background checks on private gun sales was defeated in 2016. The campaign was divisive and drew heavy spending from national groups like Everytown for Gun Safety and the National Rifle Association. Supporters said the change was needed to close a loophole that allows people prohibited from owning guns – such as convicted felons or those with severe mental illnesses – to buy them without raising any red flags with law enforcement. Opponents, including many hunters, argued that requiring background checks for gun loans among friends would be a nuisance for law-abiding citizens without affecting criminals intent on skirting the law.

“It’s a hard place to be in, being a gun owner and a hunter, but also being terrified of what’s happening in the world,” Passmore said. “I don’t know what the right or wrong answers are. But there’s a lot more to understand than not liking people that own guns.”

IMPORTANT TO ‘SEE THE OTHER SIDE OF THINGS’

In the wake of another school shooting, some gun owners were reluctant to talk about their opinions and distrustful of the media.

They feared people will tune them out, or that they will be labeled or stereotyped in an unfair way.

“We just want to do something we love and be left alone,” Stanhope said. “We sure as heck don’t want to be blamed for the other ills of society.”

Even those who supported some restrictions said more laws will not stop criminals from getting guns, and gun-free zones at schools will not protect students. They said the focus should be on people who break the law or have mental health problems, not those who use their guns in a responsible way.

“If the government would pay for the help that these people need, I think that would help society as a whole,” Hamilton said. “They maybe could become productive members of society instead of these disturbed loner outcasts that don’t have friends and family connections.”

Carter Barthelman, 17, a senior at South Portland High School. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

At South Portland High School, Barthelman said one other student and the teacher stayed in his environmental science class during Thursday’s walkout. While the 17-minute protest was going on outside, they talked inside about the need for better mental health treatment. Barthelman said he knows most of his peers don’t share his views, but teachers help to moderate respectful debates at school.

“You certainly get an earful of the other view,” he said. “But I’ve got to see both sides with the environment that I’m in. I feel it’s important that we do see the other side of things.”

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: megan_e_doyle

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