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Gun-toting woman divides community

LEBANON, Pa. - Before heading out the door to go to Wal-Mart, Meleanie Hain fussed over her children, grabbed her coat and keys, then ran upstairs to get one more item: her loaded Glock 26, which she strapped to her hip.

Meleanie Hain near her Lebanon County daycare with her glock on her hip. ( John Costello /Staff Photographer )
Meleanie Hain near her Lebanon County daycare with her glock on her hip. ( John Costello /Staff Photographer )Read moreJohn Costello / Staff Photographer

This story originally appeared Dec. 12. 2008.

LEBANON, Pa. - Before heading out the door to go to Wal-Mart, Meleanie Hain fussed over her children, grabbed her coat and keys, then ran upstairs to get one more item: her loaded Glock 26, which she strapped to her hip.

She never leaves home without it.

Hain, 30, has caused a stir in this rural Pennsylvania Dutch community 25 miles east of Harrisburg for packing a gun everywhere she goes, including to her 5-year-old daughter's soccer games this fall.

She's paid a big price for sticking to her gun.

The mother of four, who often carries a baby on one hip and her Glock on the other, has been criticized by even the most ardent gun-lovers. From once-friendly neighbors to the local police chief, the general feeling is that Hain's pistol-packing behavior is, well, extreme.

"People get alarmed because they don't see that too often," said Charlie Jones, a soccer coach who confronted Hain about the gun at a Sept. 11 game. "They don't know what your intentions are going to be."

Hain said the outcry has hurt her babysitting business and left her feeling isolated. She has been called an attention-seeker, psycho, moron and worse on hundreds of pages on Internet forums. Neighbors have blasted her on radio shows, her daughter's principal warned her against taking the gun to school (she doesn't), and the local police chief advised her to put it away.

Now she is firing back. On Oct. 24, Hain filed a federal lawsuit against Lebanon County and Mike DeLeo, the sheriff who revoked her gun permit after jittery parents complained about her at the Sept. 11 game.

The suit says they violated her constitutional and civil rights and seeks more than $1 million.

"The sheriff got on TV after the hearing and said, 'I stand by my decision,' " said Hain, who grew up in Lancaster County in a family that did not own guns. "That comment makes people think I'm still an idiot and what he did was right."

DeLeo, who calls himself a staunch NRA member, said he has nothing against guns but felt it was his duty to take action "because of the safety and security issues involving [children] on the field."

Last week, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence offered to defend DeLeo and the county for free.

"This is a case that calls out for common sense and sanity," said Daniel Vice, the center's senior attorney. "It's an incredible risk to bring a loaded semi-automatic weapon to a children's soccer game."

No one disputes Hain's right to own a gun. Many of her critics are hunters. But they say that packing heat at a soccer game - or anywhere else around children - is dangerous and foolhardy.

In Pennsylvania, gun owners are allowed to carry weapons in the open as Hain does, but need a permit to conceal them in a pocket, purse or car. So without a permit, Hain could still carry a gun at the game but couldn't take it in the car to get there.

Even Judge Robert J. Eby, who restored her permit on Oct. 14, said he thought she lacked good judgment and common sense.

"You scared the devil out of some other people," Eby said.

He chided her for causing anxiety and apprehension in other people and said he didn't think anyone needed gun protection at a 5-year-old's soccer game. Concealing it "would be the right thing to do," he said.

Hain, who has children ages 1, 5 and 9 and a 9-year-old stepdaughter, says a near-fatal car accident 21/2 years ago destroyed her sense of security and convinced her that the worst can happen.

"I thought, 'What more can I do to ensure the safety of myself and my children?' " she said. "It's not a matter of being paranoid. People have smoke detectors and fire extinguishers in their homes. They're not paranoid; they're prepared."

Articulate and well-versed in gun laws, she is a vegetarian and Krishna follower with a Sanskrit symbol tattooed on her forearm, though she calls herself a "pseudo-devotee." Her husband, who taught her to shoot, works in law enforcement but stays out of the fray, fearing it will cost him his job. She won't say where he works and in fact, he sat in his car while a reporter and photographer were in his house with Hain.

Her babysitting business has suffered. Two babysitting clients have fled and she is down to just one family. Michael Long - who leaves Tyler, 2, and Joshawa, 8, with Hain one day a week - said he doesn't worry because she locks up her gun when the children are in the house.

"I can see where she's coming from," he said, scooping up Tyler in Hain's living room, which was filled with toys. In a large crate in the kitchen was Ghost, an enormous bull mastiff.

Others, though, say they can't understand why she feels so threatened.

"I said, 'Kids are more in danger of falling off a piece of playground equipment or getting hit by a car in the parking lot than anybody coming and doing anything where you need a gun to defend yourself,' " Jones said.

But Hain sees danger lurking around every corner.

She carries the weapon cowboy-style because in an emergency - not that there has ever been one - "I don't really need anything extra in the way of the gun if I'm going to have to pull it out and I'm holding a baby and trying to shuttle two or three other kids," she said.

And she doesn't want to have to wait for help to arrive. "When seconds count," she said, "the police are minutes away."

DeLeo said he had rarely seen anyone other than a police officer walk around with a gun on the hip. In fact, doing so might make Hain more of a target, he said.

"If you carry it open, you already lost the element of surprise," he said.

Moreover, it increases the change of accidental shootings, Vice of the Brady Center said. And a child could easily grab it.

"Semiautomatic weapons are made so that even young children can fire them," he said.

At Wal-Mart, Hain zipped through the aisles like any other busy mother, except she had a Glock on her hip instead of a cell phone. The last time she was in the store, a woman complained about the gun to a manager who asked Hain to leave. She explained that she was legally entitled to carry the gun and marched back into the store.

On this trip, few people seemed to notice the gun as she filled her cart with Pokémon cards, jeans and diapers. Then in the milk aisle, a man and woman approached.

"Thank you for standing up for yourself," said John Stegall, who said he recognized her from the newspaper.

After they left, Hain, ever vigilant, said she had noticed them looking at her and wondered whether they were going to cause trouble.

"People who carry pay a lot of attention to what's going on around them," she said.

Hain has thought about becoming a cop, but friends told her that nobody would hire her because "she makes waves," she said.

But as she checked out, a young cashier asked whether she was a police officer.

"No, it's for self-defense," she said as she loaded her cart. "Do you know how many crimes have taken place in Wal-Mart parking lots?"