PORTLAND, Maine — The police chief for Maine’s largest city said Wednesday a change in state law that will allow citizens to carry a concealed handgun without a permit in public will make the state more dangerous.

“When this legislation goes into effect tomorrow — police officers and sheriffs around the state — their lives will be in danger,” Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said. “Our citizens, their lives will be in danger.”

Sauschuck also took the unusual step of announcing a misdemeanor arrest made by his officers Tuesday, Oct. 12, where a man was charged with a carrying concealed handgun without a permit. Charged with the crime was Peter Shepard, 58, who was allegedly carrying a loaded .45-caliber handgun at the Northgate Shopping Plaza.

The law change, championed by Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, will go into effect at midnight Thursday.

The change allows any adult older than 21, who is not otherwise prohibited by state or federal law from possessing a firearm, to carry a concealed handgun without a permit. Those age 18 to 20 who are either a veteran or on active U.S. military duty also may carry a concealed handgun without a permit under the law change.

The law change does not allow firearms to be carried in any of the places where they are prohibited, including schools or other public buildings such as the State House or in any state or federal courts.

The law change also keeps in place Maine’s concealed weapons permitting system, which allows those who want a permit to apply to receive one either through the Maine State Police or a local police department.

Some may still want a permit as it will allow them to carry concealed in other states that require permits and recognize a Maine permit as valid.

Opponents of the change had said removing safety training and the criminal and mental health background checks required for a concealed handgun permit will make it more likely unstable or dangerous individuals will begin carrying handguns in public.

Sauschuck said Portland police were alerted to Shepard after a report that he was threatening others with the weapon. Sauschuck said while police were unable to locate any victims, they did find witnesses who said Shepard had been pointing the gun at the occupants of a car that then drove off.

Sauschuck also said it appeared Shepard had altered his handgun with a fluorescent pink paint in order to make it look like a toy or pellet gun.

“Mr. Shepard stated to us at the scene that he carried this firearm because he wanted to protect himself from police officers,” Sauschuck said.

Had the incident with Shepard occurred Thursday, officers would have had no other choice except to return the gun to Shepherd and ask him to go home, Sauschuck said.

“This is the exact situation, as law enforcement, that we are concerned about,” Sauschuck said. “I’m sure our legislators, many of them, are highly intelligent, and they are invested in their communities, but the individuals who voted for this bill made the wrong choice.”

Supporters of the law change, including Brakey, say states with laws that allow more individuals to carry concealed handguns with fewer restrictions have proven to have lower overall crime rates than those that don’t.

“Vermont [has] had this in place for 200 years,” Brakey said. “They are the safest state in the nation with the lowest amount of violent crime per capita.”

Brakey also said that he was skeptical that Portland police could only charge Shepard with the concealed weapons charge and no additional charges, especially if as Sauschuck said they had witnesses who said he pointed the weapon at somebody.

“I can’t imagine why they couldn’t have charged him with something else as well unless the only goal was to make a political statement,” Brakey said.

Brakey said that while Sauschuck may feel the law change is going to make the state more dangerous, he also has heard from individual police officers who feel otherwise.

“I’ve spoken with individual police officers who feel both ways actually,” Brakey said. “Some are for it, some are against it. There is not one person who can claim to speak for all law enforcement officers. They are individual people with their own sets of views and value systems.”

He said a number of retired law enforcement officers who are now state lawmakers, including Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, voted for the law change because they did not believe the change would put police officers in any greater danger.

“If [Burns] thought for a single moment that passing this was going to put any law enforcement officer in any additional danger he would not have supported it for a moment, but he was proud to support it,” Brakey said.

Meanwhile Jason Moen, the deputy police chief in Auburn, where Brakey lives, said officers did have legitimate concerns over the law change.

Moen said he worries that some who elect to carry a concealed handgun without a permit may not be well educated on Maine’s self-defense laws or on gun safety in general.

“We are also concerned about more guns being on the street, but our officers are trained to treat subjects as armed until they know otherwise,” Moen said. “People need to be clear on the law, and if they interact with an officer while carrying concealed unpermitted, they need to communicate that to the officer.”

The law change also requires those who are carrying without a permit to immediately inform law enforcement when they encounter them that they are carrying a hidden handgun or they could also face a misdemeanor charge.

Scott Thistle

Scott Thistle is the State Politics Editor for the Lewiston Sun Journal. He has covered federal, state and local politics in Maine for nearly two decades.