If you’re a hunter who wants to bring your rifle on a Maine ferry, don’t worry about it. You may.

If you’re a passenger worried that other riders might be carrying concealed guns, all you can do is hope they will be as law-abiding as virtually all previous ferry riders have been.

“Ferries are the life blood of island communities,” said Beth Gedney, safety and security officer for the Passenger Vessel Association, a Washington-based group representing a wide variety of passenger boats. “You can’t apply airline rules to ferries.” The PVA has 575 members around the country-everything from giant cruise ships to tiny whale watch boats, including Casco Bay Lines (CBL) in Portland.

Last year, on October 1, a man with a handgun committed suicide on a ferry, prompting CBL to initiate a weapons policy on November 16.

After toying with a number of ideas such as locking guns up while onboard, CBL ended up putting in writing what according to CBL staff had been unwritten policy all along.

Paraphrased, the policy states: Persons carrying weapons must have all appropriate permits and licenses; weapon must be packed or in a carrying case or sheath, and kept out of sight; never handled or displayed on the vessel, pier or in the terminal; weapons must not be left unattended; firearms must be unloaded and ammunition is packed separately.

That’s just not good enough for Capt. Gene Willard, a captain with CBL for 25 years. “I have been concerned about the crew for a long time before” the suicide incident, said Willard. “I went to the Portland police, but they said there was nothing they could do.”

Last October, 55-year-old Robert Morey of South Portland boarded the 8:15 p.m. Peaks Island ferry. Crew members say he chatted pleasantly with some of them, went to the stern alone, fired multiple shots and fell head-first into the harbor. A day or two later, CBL received a letter from Morey, saying he chose the ferry because he loved it so much and apologizing to the bay lines staff.

“He must have mailed it from the terminal when he was leaving. I shared the letter with the poor folks who were involved in retrieving his body,” said Catherine Debo, CBL’s general manager. “I don’t think the policy makes a difference,” said Debo. “It won’t stop someone intent on doing something.”

Willard agrees the policy doesn’t make a difference, and also believes a stronger policy would have been written if Morey had hurt or killed someone else.

“People have always been allowed to bring weapons on the boat,” Willard said. “I know a lot of hunters, I respect them. I have no problem with people I know.” However, since he doesn’t know everyone, he believes weapons should be checked or shipped. “I own rifles,” he added. “But this is public transportation and to see a guy sitting there with a gun is upsetting.”

“So our policy is to conceal your weapon. He did exactly that. There was a deck hand seconds away from trying to stop him. He heard a pop and the captain sent him down. If he had gotten there a few seconds earlier, maybe he’d be dead.”

On the other hand, hundreds of regular ferry riders signed a petition three years before asking to insure that tighter federal security measures would not complicate or slow their travel between Portland and the islands. The stricter regulations were mandated by the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002. CBL considered metal detectors, but decided they were too expensive, and “people don’t want to be inconvenienced, slowed down or feel like they’re living in a police state,” said Willard.

The Maine State Ferry Service (MSF) operates in Penobscot Bay between Rockland and the year-round communities on Vinalhaven, North Haven, and Matinicus; from Lincolnville to Islesboro; and from Bass Harbor to Swans Island and Frenchboro.

“Since we’re public transportation and people hunt on islands, there’s not much we can do to ban guns,” said General Manager Jim McLeod. He’s been in charge in Rockland for five years and experienced no incidents concerning guns during that time, and hasn’t heard about any previously.

“If someone is going to do something with a gun, without metal dectectos, we can’t stop them,” McLeod said. “We aren’t configured for metal detectors. We are not like airports, they’re more controlled environments. Buses and trains don’t have them either.  I think they would be overkill.”

After September 11, 2001, “We had to design around risk, and I don’t think there’s much risk,” McLeod said. “The bigger fear is a load of explosives to use against a tanker.” The state ferry service’s policy is similar to CBL’s, mandating only that firearms be unloaded, in a case and not displayed or handled while being transported.

Most of the Coast Guard and marine security regulations mandated by the new law are intended to prevent terrorist acts.

“A terrorist act is less likely to happen (on a Casco Bay ferry) than an incident like the suicide,” said Debo.

“We’re reasonably well set up for terrorism and rowdiness,” said Debo. “Individual incidents where someone is determined to do himself in, I don’t know what we could do. We have to keep the service reasonably attractive to riders.”

Robert “Roki” Horr is the assistant operations manager for CBL. He echoes a concern expressed by several ferry administrators, that their services are presented with an issue that borders on infringing on Constitutional rights.

“Our research after the incident, showed not many ferry systems even addressed weapons directly, A lot of ferries, such as on Lake Champlain, get a lot of hunters. We transport the deer as well as the hunters,” added Horr. “Weapons on ferries are not new, we deal with them every hunting season. The suicide incident brought up the issue of concealed weapons.”

“There’s an ‘open carry’ movement, especially since the recent Supreme Court ruling (supporting the right to bear arms), that advocates for carrying weapons openly, thinking it might address some of the problems regarding criminals. It’s a complicated issue.”

“My father and grandfather were avid hunters. I grew up around firearms,” said Horr. “Most gun owners are very responsible.”

“Our weapons policy doesn’t specify firearms because we transport bows and crossbows,” said Horr. “We had an instance where a young bow hunter was ‘fiddling’ with his weapon and the captain took it and locked it up, gave it back when they arrived in port.”

As for the “all necessary permits and licenses” portion of the policy, Horr said that’s a gray area, because we don’t train people to check IDs, which could be counterfeit. Checking an ID is just window dressing if you don’t have the mechanism to check its background.

Horr and Debo say CBL personnel receive extensive training in safety and security measures. Following the suicide, they conducted exercises with fireboat personnel to improve their retrieval techniques.

“The Coast Guard didn’t anoint them as law officers when they charged them with vessel safety,” Gedney says of ferry crews. “So they don’t feel they can check purses for handguns.”

All bets are off, of course, with ferries going to Canada, where customs and other cross-border rules apply.

“Canada doesn’t allow you bring guns in,” said Gedney, who once ran a ferry from Seattle to Victoria, B.C.

As for locking up rifles during trips, Gedney said a Great Lakes ferry service tried that. In response to 9/11, the service required all rifles be stored in the pilot house and locked up with the captain. “After one trip they abandoned that policy,” said Gedney. “There were so many guns in the wheelhouse, the captain couldn’t move.”