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Bill to Arm Maine Forest Rangers Advances
03/18/2014   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Maine moved another step closer to becoming only the third northeastern state - after New York and New Hampshire - to arm forest rangers. As Susan Sharon reports, the Senate today joined the House in supporting a bill that would allow rangers to protect themselves on the job.

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Rangers have been threatened, assaulted, held at gunpoint and, in one case, shot and wounded, doing their jobs in Maine. Yet, they are the only law enforcement officers in the state who are not permitted to carry a firearm.

Sen. Gary Plummer, a Republican from Windham, asked his colleagues to think about the Maine Law Enforcement Officers' Memorial next to the State House. It contains the names of 78 law enforcement officers who've been killed in the line of duty.

"Do we want to wait 'til we see the name of a ranger on that wall before we act?" Plummer asked colleagues. "I hope we don't. Thank you, Mr. President."

In addition to arming rangers, the bill contains a training requirement of 64 hours worth of firearms classroom instruction, firing range practice and education in the use of force. But most of it would be spent at target practice actually handling weapons. And Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, a Democrat from Freeport, doesn't think that's appropriate or sufficient. He says living and working as they do in Maine, most of the state's 74 forest rangers probably already know how to shoot a gun.

But Gerzofsky fears arming rangers will mean they'll get called as backup for law enforcement to handle dangerous situations that are unfamiliar.

"We don't all know how to de-escalate a situation that might be domestic violence that these rangers are now going to be asked to back people up on," Gerzofsky said. "We don't all know how, without training, to pull a drunk out of a car without causing a lot of problems and getting yourself shot."

Gerzofsky says if rangers are going to be asked to act like cops, they should be trained at Maine's Criminal Justice Academy the same way cops are.

Democratic Sen. David Dutremble points out that rangers already receive more training than some law enforcement officers who are currently carrying sidearms.

"A part-time law enforcement officer in the state can carry a firearm after two weeks of law enforcement training, followed by weapons training," he said. "Forest rangers have 12 weeks of law enforcement training and will receive an additional 64 hours of weapons training."

Both the Maine Forest Products Council, a lobbying association for the forest products industry, and the Small Woodlot Owners Association of Maine, oppose the bill. They fear it will divert rangers from their primary mission to protect and manage the state's forest lands and create another law enforcement agency in the woods.

In an effort to reach a compromise, Republican Sen. Roger Sherman of Houlton offered an amendment to create a new category of forest ranger - conservation officer - and arm just nine of them instead, one for each district. "They'd have the same powers and duties as a forest ranger and they'd have law enforcement duties also," he said.

But Sherman's amendment was narrowly rejected by the Senate, which went on to adopt the bill by a vote of 24 to 11. The bill was previously passed by an overwhelming majority in the House but still faces additional votes.


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