Monday, June 16, 2003
COLUMN: M.D. Harmon
Civil liberties group forming to back shooting sports, self-defense

Copyright © 2003 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc

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Maine has a national reputation as a state where civil liberties regarding firearms are deeply respected and well-protected in law.

Jeff Weinstein of Yarmouth agrees, and as a former head of the Pine Tree State Rifle and Pistol Association, the state's premier group of target-shooting enthusiasts, he intends to keep it that way.

That's why he and some friends last week formed the Maine Gun Owners Association (846-3000 or www.MGOA.com}, a group that, its initial news release said, is intended to respond to "an increasing need to vigilantly protect and defend the rights and opportunities for gun owners to keep, bear and use firearms."

But why does the state need such a group, when the National Rife Association exists at the national level to support Second Amendment rights, and Maine has the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, which has historically spoken out on such issues along with its focus on hunting and fishing?

It's not as though Second Amendment rights are under a major threat nationwide. The Bush administration may have made mild statements in support of renewing the current ban on so-called "assault weapons." But conservatives in Congress recognize that's a media-created term applied to weapons no different in their operation than semi-automatic deer rifles. The ban is based on mere appearance, and will expire this year unless Congress renews it; it may not even come up for a vote.

True, there will be some ginned-up "outrage" for the TV cameras from the side of the political spectrum that likes to create straw issues for political gain. But things have changed in this country since Sept. 11, 2001. More and more Americans have come to see the value in possessing weapons useful for self-defense, and many in Congress understand that perfectly well. Indeed, in the past few weeks two more states, Colorado and Minnesota, adopted "shall-issue" concealed carry laws for handguns. They joined the majority of states requiring that all applicants for concealed weapon permits be issued them, unless the applicants have criminal records or histories of mental problems.

Alaska has just gone a step beyond that. Formerly a shall-issue state, it has now joined Vermont by removing the permit requirement completely for law-abiding citizens to carry a concealed firearm. Maine is a shall-issue state, and benefits not only from a history of friendliness to firearms, but a constitutional amendment that says, "Every citizen has the right to keep and bear arms and this right shall never be questioned."

Weinstein likes that, but he's not complacent: "Even rights that are that well-protected still depend on how people interpret those words, and they can be nibbled at around the edges," he said last week.

"We think the NRA does a good job nationally, and SAM is really strong when it comes to hunters' rights and issues, but there wasn't any state body that existed to defend the use of firearms in competition and for personal protection. We intend to fill that gap, by public education and by lobbying our legislators on these issues."

So, does he think a recent law that will allow judges to remove guns from people placed under temporary domestic violence restraining orders is an infringement on Second Amendment rights?

"Where there is a history of violence or threatening behavior, I think it would be a wise thing to take a person's firearms away and give them to a trustworthy third party until there can be a hearing," Weinstein said.

"But we're worried about the fact that a person who has not committed any crime could lose his constitutional rights for an extended period without being able to present his side of the dispute in court. We would favor mandating a hearing on such removals within the shortest period of time possible. We intend to seek changes in the law to require that."

Weinstein describes himself as an NRA-certified firearms instructor who runs "the most active ongoing civilian firearms training program in the state." He says his group now numbers about 50 people from a wide variety of interests and backgrounds, "including a number of lawyers, retired business executives and the like. We have the expertise to grow and expand our efforts."

He hopes to increase MGOA to "a thousand members by the end of the year." That would give it clout in Augusta beyond just the weight of its arguments - which he pledges will always be expressed with diplomacy and a high degree of respect for people who disagree.

Does Maine need MGOA? Well, it already has Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence, a title with which few could disagree. But that group tends to focus on problems with firearms while ignoring their many pleasures and benefits - not to mention their constitutional guarantees.

Weinstein doesn't want to see Maine go the way of Massachusetts, where people must get a license even to own firearms and must ask the police for permits to purchase or openly carry one. "The Second Amendment doesn't exist in Massachusetts," he says. "We don't want that to happen here."

- M.D. Harmon, an editorial writer and editor, can be reached at mharmon@pressherald.com or 791-6482