ACADIA NATIONAL PARK — A bill now before the Maine Legislature that would allow concealed handguns to be carried anywhere without a permit also may apply to Acadia National Park.
Under a federal law that went into effect in February 2010, National Park Service units are subject to the gun laws of the states in which they are located. Current Maine law, enacted in 2009, includes a specific provision for Acadia. It bans open carry of weapons, which are allowed everywhere else in Maine, but does allow those with a concealed weapons permit to carry loaded guns.
Stuart West, Acadia’s chief law enforcement ranger, said Tuesday that he needs to remain neutral on the proposed law to eliminate the permit requirement.
“Our job is to enforce whatever the state comes up with,” he said. “But it does seem to me that the 2009 state law was a logical and balanced approach.”
David MacDonald, president of Friends of Acadia (FOA), agreed with that assessment.
“The overwhelming public feedback FOA received at the time was that people’s experience in the park would be diminished by allowing more weapons,” he said.
MacDonald said FOA is “very concerned” about the prospect of people being allowed to carry concealed handguns in Acadia without having to undergo the criminal and mental health background check required now to obtain a permit.
“We believe the proposed law would have a negative impact on the terrific visitor experience at Acadia and the huge economic benefit that visitation brings to many Mainers,” he said.
Although concealed weapons are currently allowed in Acadia with a permit, no firearms of any kind are permitted in park buildings that are regularly occupied by government employees. Those include the park headquarters buildings and the Hulls Cove visitor center.
That would not change, even if the Legislature passes the no-permit-needed bill.
Police chiefs react
Jim Willis, chief of the Bar Harbor and Mount Desert police departments, also is the current president of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association. It opposes the elimination of permits for concealed handguns.
But Willis said Tuesday that in his role as police chief, he prefers not to take a public position on proposed laws or ordinances.
“I try really hard to have our police departments not influencing politics,” he said. “We don’t want to do that. We want to respond to what the community wants and what the community needs.
“Hopefully, we are engaging in conversations where we can provide people with information that can help them make decisions.”
As for the issue of carrying a concealed handgun, Willis said that under state law, there are only a few reasons a permit can be denied. One disqualifying factor is a criminal record. Grounds for refusal also include a prior involuntary committal to a mental health facility. Another reason is much more vague and open to interpretation: bad moral character.
“I’ve said ‘no’ to a few people, usually based on a crime of violence or something else in their past,” Willis said. “Sometimes we may know that someone is engaged in a situation where a firearm really isn’t a good thing to be inserting into the middle of it. We might have a talk with somebody and ask, ‘Are you really sure this is a good time?’
Willis said he takes the issuing of concealed weapons permits very seriously.
“I see signing that permit as giving them a permission slip to put a gun under their coat,” he said. “Currently, our society thinks we need to be checking on that.”
Southwest Harbor Acting Police Chief Mike Miller said he hasn’t formed an opinion on the proposed concealed handgun law.
“I support people’s Constitutional right [to carry weapons], but we have to be careful how we do that,” he said.
The proposed state law, introduced by Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Androscoggin), would authorize “a person who is not prohibited from possessing a firearm to carry a concealed handgun without a permit.” It also would allow the possession without a permit of “a loaded pistol or revolver while in a motor vehicle.”
In a comment posted online Thursday morning, Sen. Brakey claimed the bill will keep the carry permit system in place “but makes it optional.” Concealed carry would only be allowed where open carry is permitted now, he claims although the actual bill language makes no mention of that distinction.
The bill has 95 co-sponsors, which is just over half the total number of house and senate members. Sen. Brian Langley (R-Hancock) is among the co-sponsors.
Editor’s Note: This story originally stated that the bill would apply to Acadia National Park. That language was changed to “may apply” after a communication from the bill’s sponsor.