ACADIA NATIONAL PARK, Maine — Before the short-lived legal right disappears, Shane Belanger wants to exercise his ability to openly carry a firearm in the only national park in Maine.
Even if it rains on Sunday, Belanger said, his group plans to go ahead with a picnic planned at 1 p.m. on Thompson Island, where Route 3 crosses onto Mount Desert Island. A ban in Acadia on openly carried firearms goes into effect on Monday, so the event has to be held Sunday or never, he said Friday.
“We kind of have to have it,” Belanger said. “It’s only 50 percent chance of rain. It’s not that bad.”
The purpose of the picnic, at which people are invited to carry firearms in plain sight, is to protest a law that the Maine Legislature adopted earlier this year. When Congress passed a law saying that firearms laws in national parks had to be consistent with local state law, it gave people the right to carry firearms openly in Acadia National Park, beginning in February when the federal law went into effect.
State Sen. Dennis Damon, whose district includes Acadia, introduced a bill in the Legislature that would have banned weapons in Acadia and other federal lands in Maine, but the bill was amended to ban only the open carry of firearms in Acadia. People who have Maine concealed-weapons permits will be allowed to carry their firearms into Acadia.
“We lost this right for absolutely no reason,” Belanger said Friday, referring to the open carry prohibition. “There were no problems [in Acadia while the open carry of firearms was allowed]. There were no reasons to ban it.”
Belanger, a Caribou resident who organized a similar gun-rights rally in Portland in April, said that the main issue about openly carrying firearms in Acadia is exercising his constitutional rights. He said he doesn’t think he is likely to be attacked in either Portland or Acadia, but he has the right to be prepared in case he is.
“Why can I not defend myself in Acadia?” Belanger asked. “Is it my right? Yes.”
Sunday’s picnic will be the first event ever held by the Maine Open Carry Association, which was founded by Belanger in late April after the Portland gun-rights rally. He said he was not sure how many people might attend the event in Acadia and declined to estimate how many members his organization has, saying he was not at home and did not have access to his home computer.
Belanger said he plans to address the gathering and that state Rep. David Cotta of China and Paul Mattson, a private firearms instructor with Maine Concealed Weapons Permit Training, also plan to speak. He said that ultimately the group’s goal is to change the law to re-establish the open carry of firearms in Acadia.
Stuart West, head ranger for Acadia, said Friday that the group has a permit from the park to hold a gathering for up to 50 people. He said rangers likely will stop by to see how things are going, as they do with all permitted gatherings in the park, but that he doesn’t anticipate any problems.
“We’re not concerned about it at all,” West said of the picnic.
West said that the park is charged with protecting the natural resources in the park and has to balance this responsibility with the rights of visitors.
Before Congress passed the new law, guns were allowed in Acadia only if they were kept unloaded and were not easily accessible. Visitors were not allowed to carry firearms on their person, but could keep them packed away in a vehicle.
The new state law allows park visitors to carry loaded weapons into the park on their person, but not into park buildings, if they have a Maine concealed-weapons permit. Maine has reciprocity agreements with Delaware, Louisiana, and South Dakota, so concealed-weapon permits issued in those states also will be honored in Acadia, West said.
According to West, the new state law is a good compromise between people who want loaded weapons allowed in the park and those who do not want them allowed. What park officials want to make sure is that with the new, more relaxed restrictions, park visitors do not take more risks than they would if loaded weapons were not allowed, he said.
For example, if someone were staying at a campground and fed a raccoon, the raccoon could become more aggressive presented with easy access to food, West said. Park officials are concerned that if the raccoon becomes too aggressive, someone with a handy firearm might be more inclined to shoot it in order to protect themselves or their family, he said.
“We don’t want people to interact with the park differently or to take more risks than they would otherwise [if they didn’t have a firearm],” West said.
Stephanie Clement, conservation director of Friends of Acadia, also said the new state law “makes sense,” even though the group opposed the change in the federal law.
Clement said the Friends had no comment about Sunday’s picnic. She said that if a new proposal to re-allow the open carry of firearms in Acadia were introduced in the Legislature, the Friends likely would oppose it.
“I anticipate we would defend all the hard work we did this past spring,” she said.
Many people have indicated they are uncomfortable with the ability of visitors to openly carry firearms into Acadia, Clement said. If the current law were extended significantly past Monday, she said, Acadia could end up losing visitors to other parks where more restrictive firearms regulations are in place.
“We believe there isn’t a need for the open carry of firearms in the park,” Clement said. “We believe the compromise reached in the Legislature this past session makes sense for Acadia.”