A well‑rounded discussion about policy issues relating to gun rights, school safety, mental health and culture was in scarce supply at a February 12 public forum entitled Newtown Policy Issues Forum held at the University of Maine at Machias (UMM). While the five panelists shared a common theme -- the need for balance in any discussion about gun rights -- in their introductions, the mostly male audience of over 60 people stood their ground on the right to bear arms of all types, with statements citing the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment and the Maine Constitution.
While many gun rights advocates at the forum cited the Second Amendment as protecting their rights, the meaning of the Second Amendment has been the subject of scrutiny and much questioning over the years. According to analysis from congressional research, key areas of debate are whether individual rights take precedence over state's rights and the meaning of militia. Until 2008 the U.S. Supreme Court had not heard a Second Amendment case since 1939 and had never determined if the amendment to bear arms was conferred upon individuals or only upon the militias referred to in its opening clause. In 2008 the court ruled on the side of individual rights. The Second Amendment states, "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."
While at times the forum felt like the Wild West might be resurrected, the calmer voices of gun rights advocates, including some of the panelists, expressed frustration at the lack of funding for mental health support, lack of personal responsibility in a culture that glorifies violence through television shows, movies and games, and a government that does not enforce existing laws that could help control gun misuse.
Panelist Ashley Pesek stated her hope that the forum would look at the "integral rights of the individual and the safety of the community ... ensuring that we're managing to protect liberties, life, schools and that it's respectful rather than about the fears of the mentally ill."
Individual freedoms were on the minds of many audience members. Forum coordinator UMM Professor Jon Reisman says, "Clearly there was a gender difference in the audience" that may have contributed to the less than balanced conversation, which was primarily on the right to bear arms. "Only two women spoke" in the audience, he notes, which may have indicated the difference in theme of security versus freedoms. The statements made about the right to bear arms of any kind raised images of gun‑toting civilians using their weapons in defense of people who were being threatened by others. Little discussion was raised about how the general public would be able to determine the motives of one gunman over another and whether such a climate would produce a safer community.
The lone audience voice questioning gun rights was a woman from Whiting. She asked, "How do people equate the right to bear arms with the right to bear any and all arms?" She added, "I feel upset that the majority of the audience feels that they should be able to carry any weapon they want. I don't see how that keeps my granddaughter safe at school."
The Whiting woman's concern about the audience's propensity for bearing any and all types of arms was illustrated by a number of comments, including some addressed to the sheriff about his position on assault weapons bans and concealed weapons. Sheriff Donnie Smith explained that it was his job to uphold the law. However, laws needed to be considered carefully. For example, he explained, if a bank robber suddenly is faced with a number of people drawing their own legally carried guns, would those citizens know what protocol to follow? Police officers have protocols to keep civilians safe, he explained, and would not draw their guns until the robber was out of the building. He asked the audience, "Would you?"
While some advocated for having retired military or others with gun‑handling experience patrol school entryways, others, including panelist Sheriff Smith, suggested that a school resource officer might be more effective than having an armed patrolman or administrator. "You're still going to have problems, but the chances are just a little less that something will happen." He explained, "Officers are trusted by students, they tell the officer about classmates who threaten to bring in guns."
Panelist Scott Huber said, "The focus should be on personal responsibility. ... There was a time in this country when people were responsible for their actions and were expected to be." He connected the concept of personal responsibility with taking care of neighbors, watching out for those who show signs of mental health issues and intervening. "People involved in these tragedies fell through the cracks."
The forum was organized and moderated by UMM Professor Jon Reisman with the help of Professor Tora Johnson and UMM policy scholar Luis Herrera. Reisman explained that he was approached by Dr. James Whalen of Machias "to do something" after Newtown. Given the university's public service mission, Reisman felt that a public forum was the right way to go. "I had mixed feelings, as everyone else, to facilitate a forum about such a disturbing event." However, he explains, "There are a lot of strong feelings and we need to have a public discussion." He adds, "What we got was honest. ... Nobody's mind was changed, but it's therapeutic to talk about it."
Reisman hopes that there will be more community discussions about gun rights. "It helps communities to be able to talk and listen to each other."
Panelists were: Sheriff Smith; AOS 96 Superintendent Scott Porter; Ashley Pesek, clinical consultant to the emergency services program of Aroostook Mental Health Center; Scott Huber, a harbormaster, shellfish conservation warden, police and animal control officer with the Town of Harrington as well as a respiratory therapist with Down East Community Hospital; and Thomas Halkett, an Episcopal priest who also teaches philosophy at UMM and practices psychotherapy and counseling with a specialty in child and adolescent issues.
A video of the forum will be available at the university's website, <www.machias.edu/archived‑videos>.