Politics

February 20, 2013

New Maine law makes gun-permit data private

Most legislators dismiss worries that a temporary ban on access to the information will become permanent.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — The identity of Mainers who have permits to carry concealed guns will be shielded from the state's right-to-know law for the first time since at least 1985, following action Tuesday by the Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage.

The emergency action was a response to a Bangor newspaper's now-aborted public records request for information on concealed-weapons permit holders, and a second request for information from a little-known Florida man.

The requests followed a New York state newspaper's controversial decision to publish the names of concealed-weapons permit holders in its area in December. The Bangor Daily News request ignited rage from gun rights activists who pressured Maine lawmakers to shield the information.

The new law, sponsored by two Democratic lawmakers and requested by the Republican governor, will make the identifying information of concealed-weapons permit holders private until at least April 30.

There are at least 30,000 concealed-weapons permit holders in Maine, officials estimate. The exact number is unknown because many permits are granted by individual cities and towns and there is no statewide list.

The bill passed unanimously in the Senate on Tuesday. In the House, several Democrats objected but were vastly outnumbered, and the measure passed 129-11. LePage signed the bill into law Tuesday afternoon.

Lawmakers championed the initiative as a bipartisan move to protect the privacy of individuals who have permission to carry a weapon. Most dismissed concerns that the temporary concealing of public information in response to a perceived threat of publication could mean that the data will become private permanently.

Sen. Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said the fast-tracked vote was the right decision, saying the measure was a common-sense proposal that needed to be enacted immediately "to protect gun owners and non-owners, alike."

Supporters of the change have argued that the information could be used by criminals to determine which homes are defenseless, as well as which homes have guns inside. Several lawmakers Tuesday cited public safety issues, even though the information has been open to public inspection, copying and dissemination for at least 28 years.

Until last week, there had been no bills proposed to make the concealed-weapons permit data private since at least 2003, according to a search conducted by the Maine State Law and Legislative Reference Library.

The move by lawmakers came as advocates for the state's sunshine law warned that the information should remain public to ensure that officials who award the permits have been diligent in screening applicants. In some cases, town governing boards and not law enforcement agencies are reviewing applications and granting permits to residents.

"It's like you being able to check if a doctor has a license or not, or a lawyer is admitted to the bar or not, or your electrician is actually licensed by the state," said Mal Leary, a journalist who serves as president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition. "If you don't have access to that public record, how do you know that?"

There is also growing sentiment that the dust-up has been inflamed by some lawmakers and the Maine Republican Party for political gain and to conflate a privacy debate with the sensitive topic of gun ownership. The belief was reinforced among some when the Maine Republican Party used the newspaper flap to appeal for donations.

The Democratic co-sponsors of Tuesday's emergency bill, Sen. Troy Jackson of Allagash and Rep. Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan, said the moratorium was necessary so that lawmakers could thoroughly consider a separate bill by Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, which would make the shield permanent.

(Continued on page 2)

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