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Gun debate hits boiling point at Maine restaurant

Employees at the restaurant grew more wary after the owner’s ban on assault weapons brought a flood of hostile responses.
Employees at the restaurant grew more wary after the owner’s ban on assault weapons brought a flood of hostile responses.(Fred Field for The Boston Globe)

PORTLAND, Maine — Diners at the Grace restaurant sit under a vaulted ceiling and stained-glass windows in a former Methodist church built in the 1850s. Its cool, spiritual chic comes with a catch: No one who owns an assault rifle — or even supports the right to own one — is welcome.

Grace’s owner, Anne Verrill, posted that dis-invitation on Facebook shortly after a June 12 shooting rampage at an Orlando nightclub killed 49 people. Verrill was outraged at yet another mass shooting, this time the worst one on US soil by a single assailant, and she had had enough.

On her post, Verrill attached a picture of an assault rifle and wrote: “If you own this gun, or you condone the ownership of this gun for private use, you may no longer enter either of my restaurants, because the only thing I want to teach my children is love.”

The reaction was instantaneous — and overwhelmingly hostile — and its passion is reflected in a debate raging throughout the state, where voters will decide in November whether background checks should be expanded to private gun sales.

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On-line ratings for Grace and the Foreside Tavern in Falmouth plummeted after the post. Fake reservations wreaked havoc. And physical threats were included among the vitriol that kept the phones ringing day and night, Verrill said.

“I hope you get robbed and ask for help. I would laugh,” one person wrote on a Facebook site promoting a boycott of Verrill’s restaurants. “Perhaps you should keep it a Muslim-only zone since they preach the love you adore so much. Then teach your kids to walk among them. Your attitude will change when they start beheading your family.”

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Verrill quickly deleted her original post because of concerns about the comments. “There were some very crazy ones,” she said. “I took it down so they no longer could use it as their own platform.”

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Business overall has not been hurt, Verrill said, but what remains is a wariness among the staff — a new, extra layer of caution — that did not exist before the Facebook post went viral.

“We don’t go through every day being fearful, but you are constantly more aware of your surroundings,” Verrill said. “I knew I might upset some people, but I never could have foreseen what happened.”

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In Maine, where hunting and guns are popular, no permits are required to buy a firearm. Guns do not have to be registered, and private sales do not have to be recorded.

The referendum question, if approved, would expand background checks to nearly all private gun sales and transfers. Currently, background checks are limited to purchases through licensed dealers.

Gun-rights advocates argue that Maine has a long history of responsible gun ownership, and that the ballot question would crimp their ability to lend guns to family members and friends for hunting and training.

Anne Verrill, who owns Grace, a restaurant in Portland, does not welcome diners who own an assault weapon.
Anne Verrill, who owns Grace, a restaurant in Portland, does not welcome diners who own an assault weapon.(Fred Field for The Boston Globe)

However, supporters of background checks say the question poses no great burdens, and that checks are needed to keep Maine guns away from out-of-state criminals and the mentally ill.

“People who cannot buy guns in their home states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and elsewhere can readily come to Maine in a short drive, have a lobster roll while they’re here, and be back in Boston, Lawrence, and Haverhill in a few hours,” said Tom Franklin, president of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition.

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Inside Grace, Verrill does not ask customers whether they own an assault rifle, although she acknowledged that some might be carrying concealed weapons, as is allowed under Maine law. Such firearms would be legally prohibited at Grace if she posted a ban, but Verrill has decided against that.

“If they are going to bring a gun into a restaurant, they don’t care if you have a sign outside,” she said.

On a small scale, Verrill’s stance mirrors the gun-free zones created at several large chains across the nation, including Starbucks, Panera Bread, and Chipotle. She rejected arguments by on-line critics that her action is similar to discrimination based on race or sexual orientation.

Owning an assault weapon, she said, “is not something that is biological in nature. It’s a choice — and it’s not just a choice about whether to have a gun. It’s about a very specific kind of gun that was designed for military use.”

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David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, opposes the ballot question but said Verrill should be allowed to express her opinions without harassment.

“I’m also an American, and I support her right to say whatever she wants. More power to her,” Trahan said.

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The intense early vitriol has been largely replaced by favorable responses, Verrill said.

“There have been a lot of lovely people who wrote me letters or called or e-mailed me,’’ she said. “We also had people who have been affected by gun violence come in and say how much they were touched by the entire thing. It opened a conversation up with a lot of people.”

Seated at the Grace bar recently with friends, Whitney Rosenberg of Portland said she appreciated Verrill’s decision.

“I saw that, and I said, ‘Wow,’ ” Rosenberg said. “It’s their way of taking action.”

One reason for that action, Verrill said, is to show her two children — ages 9 and 10 — that democracy requires participation, some of it uncomfortable.

“I have taken them to the voting booth in every local and national election. I’ve raised them from birth that they have a voice and they have to use it,” Verrill said. “I can’t sit back and do nothing.”


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.