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Gun-toting man attracts criticism from both sides

PORTLAND, Maine — A man who strolled through Maine’s largest city with an assault weapon similar to one used in the Connecticut elementary school shootings is drawing criticism from both gun control and gun rights advocates.

Portland police received more than 65 calls Monday reporting that a young man was walking through Parkside neighborhood and the Back Cove area with an AR-15-style assault weapon. Justin Dean, 24, insisted he was not making any sort of statement but rather had the loaded rifle for protection while exercising his Second Amendment rights.

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Dean broke no laws, but advocates on both sides of the gun-control debate said he could have picked a better way to exert his rights than by carrying a weapon in a densely populated neighborhood and on a popular walking path.

‘‘From what I’ve seen, it seems like he has benign intentions, but a tone-deaf ear on an effective way to promote Second Amendment rights,’’ said Robert Henricksen of the Maine Open-Carry Association, a gun-rights group. ‘‘I think there are ways to achieve self-defense and Second Amendment rights, even though he says that isn’t one of his goals, without [carrying around] an AR-15, especially in light of what happened in Connecticut recently.’’

Dean said he never intended to frighten anyone and is surprised by the outcry. He said he is an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, but until Monday had never carried his Daniel Defense M-4 rifle with its 30-round clip in public.

‘‘I think the Second Amendment is an important right, but I’m not an activist; I’m not a member of the NRA or any group,’’ he said, referring to the National Rifle Association. ‘‘In no way was I trying to make a statement.’’

Police said they began receiving calls at 11 a.m. Monday about a man with an AR-15-style weapon walking down the street.

When police found Dean on a street near his apartment, they determined he was not breaking any laws and let him go his way. Dean said he then spent the next few hours walking to a post office to mail a letter in an outside mailbox and walking around the 3.5-mile Back Cove walking trail.

Along the way, a couple of people stopped him to talk about the weapon, with one person asking if it was real and if it was legal to carry open firearms, he said. But others stared at him or went out of their way to keep their distance.

Tom Franklin, president of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence, called Dean an ‘‘embarrassment’’ to gun owners and to Maine.

‘‘We aren’t gun kooks,’’ Franklin said. ‘‘By and large, we’re very responsible gun owners. But this sort of publicity is bad for gun owners. It’s bad for the state of Maine.’’

Dean’s stroll underscores the need for municipalities to have the authority to pass their own local gun control laws, said Ed Suslovic, a Portland city councilor who hopes to introduce a proposal to the Legislature in the upcoming session that would allow just that. State law forbids towns and cities from passing local gun control ordinances.

State and federal laws prohibit guns in places such as state buildings, federal buildings, and bars, and municipalities should have the same authority to enact ordinances that prohibit weapons in public buildings and at public gatherings, Suslovic said. Gun rights supporters have been known to show up at City Hall with guns for committeee meetings when gun control is discussed.

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