February 16, 2013

LePage moves to block data on concealed-weapon permits

The governor's emergency bill is a response to a Bangor newspaper's now-rescinded request for public information on permit holders.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage on Friday submitted an emergency bill that would immediately block the release of personal information included on Maine concealed-weapon permits.

click image to enlarge

Gov. Paul LePage displays his concealed-carry permit in a photo posted to his Twitter account on the afternoon of Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013. “If newspapers want to know who has concealed weapons permits, they should know I do,” LePage tweeted.

Contributed photo

Anthony Ronzio, the director of news and new media for the Bangor Daily News

Carl D. Walsh / Staff Photographer

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The bill is in response to the uproar over a Bangor newspaper's public records request for information on permit holders throughout the state. The Bangor Daily News withdrew its Freedom of Access Act request Friday, but the LePage administration says other groups have submitted requests for the permit information. At least one was submitted anonymously.

The angry reaction from gun-rights activists to the Bangor paper's Freedom of Access Act request could have repercussions for the Legislature in two key policy areas: Gun safety and the right-to-know law.

The blowback against the Daily News eased somewhat Friday when the paper rescinded its request for the names, addresses and dates of birth of permit holders -- which is public information under Maine law. But gun-control advocates are still concerned that the incident could erode support for several gun-control measures, including bills that would mandate criminal and mental health background checks on private gun sales and set limits on the size of ammunition clips. In all, 29 bills related to gun control and gun-owner rights have been introduced this session.

"We've been watching this from afar," said Bill Harwood, founder of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence of the Bangor Daily News controversy, "but our concern has been that this could be an unfortunate distraction from a meaningful debate about legislation we believe will save lives. We're concerned it could take the oxygen out of the room."

The Bangor newspaper said it never intended to publish the permit information but wanted to analyze it for a project it started some time ago on domestic violence and drug abuse, according to Anthony Ronzio, the paper's director of news and new media, in a statement released Thursday. He said the newspaper fast-tracked its request for the gun data after Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, introduced emergency legislation that would prevent information on concealed-weapon permit holders from being released to the public.

Wilson's bill had been headed for a hearing before the Criminal Justice Committee, but the Senate pulled it back after the controversy over the newspaper's request erupted Thursday.

Legislative leaders want to consider whether it's more appropriate to have the bill heard by the Judiciary Committee, which handles matters related to the state's open records laws.

Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, co-chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, said Friday that Wilson's bill should be heard by the Judiciary Committee.

"I've made my case, now I'm waiting to hear what (leadership wants)," Dion said. "In my mind (Wilson's bill) is a right-to-know issue."

Harwood said his organization doesn't plan to take a position on Wilson's bill.

But the measure has raised concerns among public-access advocates. Mal Leary, president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, said the bill is so broad that it would shield not just personal information but also general statistics on permit holders.

David Trahan, director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, the organization that drafted Wilson's bill, has said he is open to making sure statistical data remains public.

Nonetheless, Leary said, a hearty debate awaits even a narrowly-tailored bill.

Leary said protecting public access to information on permit holders acts as a check to ensure that officials who award the permits have been diligent in screening applicants. In some cases, he said, town governing boards are reviewing applications and granting permits, not law enforcement.

(Continued on page 2)

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