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South Portland Police promoting gun safety

Current Publishing,
BYLINE: Duke Harrington,

South Portland, ME

Robert Scarpelli and Jesse Peasley: South Portland police officers Robert Scarpelli, left, and Jesse Peasley show the firearms turned in for destruction this past weekend after the department circulated a press release reminding the public of its program. Police Chief Edward Googins is also in support of reviewing Maine’s open carry laws. Courtesy photo

PORTLAND – In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings in Newtown, Conn., and a subsequent scare in Portland days later when a young man was seen casually carrying a weapon along the Back Cove Trail, the South Portland Police Department is taking steps to promote gun safety.

Late last week, the department circulated a press release reminding residents of its ongoing firearm disposal service. When contacted by residents who find unwanted, forgotten, unsafe or potentially illegal firearms in their homes, the department will accept and ensure the safe disposal of these items. The courtesy service includes ammunition and explosive ordinance.

“Since this is not an investigative effort, no questions are asked,” said the department’s spokesman, Lt. Frank Clark. “The hope is that this will increase the likelihood of residents turning over such firearms, reducing their access by untrained or inappropriate persons, and potentially preventing their use in a tragic situation.

On Monday, Clark said five weapons, including three rifles and two handguns, as well as a box of gun parts, were turned in over the weekend.

“Because this is a no-questions-asked kind of thing, we really don’t know why any of these particular items were turned over,” said Clark.

The weapons will be stored in the police department evidence room. Following longstanding policy, once enough firearms are on hand, the collection will be taken to a foundry out of state that specializes in recycling the metal parts into manhole covers, said Clark.

In addition to collecting firearms that are voluntarily surrendered, South Portland Police Chief Ed Googins says he also is supporting a drive to end Maine’s status as an “open-carry” state.

Maine is one of 35 states in which it is permissible to carry a firearm in public without a license or permit. It is only for the purposes of carrying a concealed weapon that permit is required.

However, stemming from a Christmas Eve incident in Portland in which a man raised alarm by legally walking around with a rifle, area police chiefs have decided to push for a change, setting up a Jan. 22 meeting. Googins said he will be at that meeting and supports the initiative.

“I support looking at the laws around open carry,” he said on Tuesday. “I think it’s time for us to re-evaluate whether or not allowing people to carry handguns in public areas is something we should continue to do.

“After all, we live in an urban area,” said Googins. “We don’t allow hunting here. So, what good reason is there for someone to walk down the street carrying a rifle? It only causes panic.”

“We are a gun-owning state, I’m well aware of that, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be reasonable,” said Googins, a member of the nonprofit Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence, who urges parents to ask about firearms before allowing their children to visit their friends.

Scarborough Police Chief Robert Moulton and Cape Elizabeth Police Chief Neil Williams both said they support taking an in-depth look at the issue, although both stopped short of advocating an end to open carry.

Unlike, South Portland, there are areas in both Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough where certain kinds of hunting are allowed.

“We’re in a real tight spot, between protecting people’s right to bear arms and responding to commotions created when they do,” said Moulton.

“The biggest problem,” said Williams, “is that when someone creates a disturbance by carrying, we can’t even ask them any questions. So, as it stands, there’s really almost nothing we can do.”

Scarborough police spokesman Sgt. Rick Rouse said his department also offers to take in and dispose of firearms.

“We don’t really advertise it, but our evidence technician, Ron Nelson, will take them in,” said Rouse. “If people are uncomfortable with even transporting the item they can even call for pick up. We certainly don’t want anyone to get injured handling something they may be unfamiliar with.”

Capt. Brent Sinclair of the Cape Elizabeth Police Department says his force also will take in unwanted firearms.

“We’ve been doing that for as long as I’ve been here,” he said.

In Cape’s case, Sinclair said, it’s best to turn them in between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. when there is a clerk in the station. Once enough firearms are on hand, they are taken to the highway department and converted to scrap metal, said Sinclair.

All three departments also offer free trigger locks, although Googins said his supply “is getting pretty low.”

“Firearm safety is an issue everywhere,” said Googins. “The biggest issue for me is making sure that people use and store weapons safely. It’s not about taking people’s firearms away. It’s about them being prudent and cautious.”

“We don’t gauge this by how many guns we get in,” said Clark. “Our biggest thing in promoting this recently is that now people are talking about firearm safety in their own homes, thinking about whether a weapon is loaded or not, and who has access to it or not. Given that, then I think this is a success.”

A closeup: A closeup of the rifles and handguns turned over to police for destruction by South Portland residents this past weekend. Courtesy photo

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