ELLSWORTH, Maine — Washington County’s jail doctor won’t face any penalties at work for allegedly leaving a loaded pistol in an Ellsworth retailer’s bathroom Wednesday, but the sheriff said similar accidents are the reason he’s alarmed by the number of Mainers carrying concealed weapons.
“We’ve got thousands of people now with concealed carry permits,” said Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith on Thursday. “You know, you carry a gun, you’re probably gonna have to take it out of its holster, and this could very easily happen.”
Dr. Benjamin Newman, 72, of Winter Harbor was contracted by Washington County in June to treat inmates at the jail, Smith said. He was charged with reckless conduct, a misdemeanor charge, in Ellsworth on Wednesday after allegedly leaving a loaded Walther 9 mm police pistol in the bathroom of the L.L. Bean Outlet in Ellsworth.
While the doctor carries sheriff’s office identification — which allows him to carry the gun concealed in public — he’s not technically an employee of the county. Smith said Newman is more like a contractor.
“The only thing that would change his employment with the county office would be if it were a felony, because a felon can’t work for the county,” Smith said.
While the state doesn’t keep a central record of the number of concealed carry permits issued in Maine, Department of Public Safety spokesman Stephen McCausland said Thursday that the number of applications is growing.
The recent uptick in applications is big enough to have caused a three-month backlog of applications, he said. State Police Lt. David Bowler, who oversees the permitting process for Maine towns without their own police department, told the Sun Journal in March that applications shot up 46 percent between 2008 and 2001.
Smith said the number of people carrying concealed weapons makes incidents such as the one at L.L. Bean more and more likely, and it’s only a matter of time before a similar incident has a tragic ending.
“I’m a firm believer in the Second Amendment, but I’m getting a little nervous with all the concealed carry,” he said.
During daily life, there are plenty of times when someone carrying a gun would need to remove the firearm from its holster, he said, such as when using the restroom or trying on clothes in a department store changing room.
It’s easy to forget a gun and create the potential for a dangerous situation, he said, one made even more dangerous because most guns are carried loaded.
Smith said his fears are compounded by Maine’s conceal carry law, which does not specifically require the applicant to have any experience firing a gun.
The law requires permit applicants to “demonstrate a knowledge of handgun safety,” which can be shown by myriad third-party gun safety certificates. While many of those do include range time, Smith said it’s possible to take a handgun safety course without ever pulling a trigger.
“It scares me to death that we’re giving people concealed carry permits who may never have shot a gun in their life,” he said.
Whatever his reservations about Maine’s concealed carry law, Smith said he has no doubt that Newman is a competent gun owner who made a simple mistake. Efforts to contact Newman have so far been unsuccessful, but Smith said he had spoken with the doctor since the reckless conduct charge was filed.
“He just feels horrible about this, but this is how accidents happen,” Smith said. “Luckily, it wasn’t tragic.”