When officials in Waterville approved a plan last year to move City Council meetings into a new downtown common space owned by Colby College, they didn’t foresee a change to the rules about whether residents can bring guns to meetings.

Now some residents say the college’s policy against allowing guns in the Chace Community Forum is a safety concern and a reason for the city to change venues again for council meetings.

It’s not the first time the issue of whether residents should be able to bring guns to public meetings has come up in Maine.

Officials in other municipalities as well as state lawmakers have grappled over the years with the debate over whether local officials should be allowed to regulate more tightly the presence of guns at public meetings and in town or city spaces.

And at least one gun safety group and some government officials are hopeful legislation could be introduced this year that would allow municipalities to make individual decisions about whether to allow firearms at public proceedings.

State law currently does not allow municipalities to prohibit people from bearing arms at public meetings or on municipally owned property.

“As an organization, we’re focused on empowering municipalities to make that choice,” said Maine Gun Safety Coalition Executive Director Geoff Bickford, who said the group is working with a state lawmaker on introducing legislation this session. “It goes back to the long-standing principle of local control. Each town should be able to decide for themselves what’s best for them. In some parts of the state there’s more of a tradition (around gun ownership) or hunting. That should not dictate what the policy is in Portland, Lewiston or Auburn, where that’s not the tradition and not what people desire.”

At the same time, there are those who say residents should have the right to bear arms legally at all government meetings.

“Citizens might want to exercise a fundamental civil right, that is, bearing arms — while exercising other fundamental rights, that is, attending or participating in a local government meeting,” said Kim Moulton, a member of the board of directors of Gun Owners of Maine, an organization dedicated to promoting Mainers’ gun rights.

“One does not give up other civil rights to attend a Waterville public meeting, and it is not apparent why one should give up the right to go lawfully armed at such a meeting.”

About five years ago, the city of Augusta attempted to prohibit people from carrying firearms in City Hall after several councilors became concerned about a man who was carrying a firearm around the community openly, City Manager William Bridgeo said.

The city posted regulations similar to what is in place for courthouses, which are among places where it is against state law to carry a gun.  Other places include state parks, schools, federal buildings and the state Capitol area, as well as private property when prohibited by the property owner.

However, Bridgeo said the move was challenged by the National Rifle Association, which prompted the city to seek a legal opinion. That review confirmed provisions in state law prohibiting the city from regulating firearms on city property.

“Now, we don’t have any way of knowing if someone is (using) concealed carry in a meeting, or open carry, for that matter,” Bridgeo said. “As long as meetings are taking place in City Hall, we don’t have the ability to regulate that.”

The Waterville City Council meets on Oct. 2, 2018, in the Chace Community Forum, on the first floor of the new Colby College dormitory building downtown. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

The vast majority of municipalities in Maine do hold public meetings on town- or city-owned property as opposed to private property, said Maine Municipal Association Executive Director Steven Gove, although he said it is not something the association keeps track of.

Waterville previously held its council meetings at The Center, a privately owned downtown building adjoined to City Hall, but City Manager Mike Roy said there was no policy the city was ever made aware of there regarding firearms. That changed when the City Council recently began holding council meetings in Colby College’s Bill & Joan Alfond Main Street Commons building, where firearms are prohibited.

Some municipalities, such as Augusta, have sought to change the rules for public meetings and all government-owned buildings.

After the December 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting, Portland City Councilor Edward Suslovic planned to ask Portland’s legislative delegation to submit a bill that would allow the city to ban guns from public buildings such as City Hall.

“Local elected officials ought to be able to set policy on whether or not, and under what conditions, firearms should be allowed in public meetings and public facilities,” Suslovic said at the time.

Since then, lawmakers have considered bills at least three times that would allow municipalities to pass ordinances regulating the carrying of firearms in their offices, though to date none have been gained enough support.

Julian Payne pulls a stuffed toy rabbit out of a hat on April 3, 2018, to illustrate his chances of being elected to the Ward 5 City Council seat as he speaks with residents in the council chamber during a council meeting in Waterville.

Julian Payne, a Waterville resident who spoke on the issue at a recent council meeting, said he knows of at least three people who frequently carry concealed weapons at council meetings.

“I think they take it everywhere,” he said. “It’s just part of their philosophy.”

However, he also said during an effort last year to recall Mayor Nick Isgro over comments the mayor made on social media about a high school shooting survivor and other topics, meetings were contentious and it was an added incentive for people to carry guns.

“I never worried about being shot in a meeting, but I have had people come up and they were restrained from punching me in a meeting before,” Payne said.

Though he personally hasn’t packed a gun at meetings, Payne said he feels others should have the right to do so.

“If you don’t believe in the right to carry at these meetings, then you need to do the impossible and revoke the Second Amendment or Maine’s carry laws,” Payne said. “While we have these, there shouldn’t even be a debate over whether we can bring them to meetings.”

Moulton, of Gun Owners of Maine, backed up Payne’s reasoning, saying many people who carry a firearm on a daily basis do so for the entire day, including if they are attending a government meeting.

If firearms are not permitted at a government meeting venue, Moulton said, it is at the least an inconvenience to the gun owner, who has to make an out-of-the-way trip home or find another place to store the weapon.

“Either way, the person is left defenseless not only while on the way to and from a public meeting, but while at the public meeting,” Moulton said in an email. “Public meetings are not immune from violent events, and meetings which are known to be off-limits to armed citizens offer easy and defenseless targets to active shooters.”

In an age where mass shooting and gun violence are becoming increasingly common, however, Vern Malloch, Portland’s interim police chief, said it’s a reason why municipalities should be able to limit guns at public meetings.

“The way the Legislature and courthouses work is no different than the work that goes on in city government, just at a different level,” Malloch said. “We want to make sure City Hall feels as safe as possible and is as safe as possible.”

It’s unclear whether the discussion over guns in public meetings will lead to any changes in Waterville. Some city officials have said it’s unlikely, since there are no other viable places to hold meetings.

“I think it’s important to have a discussion around the fact our council meetings should be considered the people’s environment,” said Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro, who said he supports the ability to be able to carry concealed weapons to council meetings. “This is their government. The Second Amendment applies to everyone. A lot of people carry every day, and many of them you would never know are carrying.”

 

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

 


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