Residents raise the issue of need vs. constitutional rights

Posted April 09, 2010, at 8:42 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The recent squabble over whether concealed firearms belong in Acadia National Park elicited passionate reactions from both sides of the issue, but for Tom Franklin, the debate had a side-effect.

“To insist on the right to carry weapons in Acadia National Park makes all gun owners look a little nuts,” said Franklin, who is president of the board of directors for Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence. “Acadia is the last place people should need a concealed weapon. I like to distance myself from that kind of talk about guns.”

Franklin, a longtime hunter, said he has never had any interest in owning a handgun or obtaining a concealed firearm permit. For him and thousands of other Mainers, firearms are for a form of peaceful outdoor recreation that dates back centuries, not for use against another person.

“I’m concerned about the bad image that gun owners are getting because of extreme claims by other gun owners,” he said. “I see the rights of legitimate gun owners being really jeopardized.”

But for others, what’s jeopardized during debates about banning concealed firearms in national parks or anywhere else is the constitutional right to bear arms. George Smith, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said Maine’s concealed firearm law is an “unreasonable burden” and should be eliminated alto-gether. He said it does nothing to reduce violent crimes.

29,000 hidden guns

According to Lt. David Bowler of the Maine State Police, 29,236 Mainers hold concealed firearm permits. A record of “good moral character,” an ability to handle a gun safely, completion of a four-page application and a $35 fee are among Maine’s requirements for the right to carry a hidden handgun. Applicants must also con-sent to the release of any records related to being a patient at one of the state’s two mental hospitals. For non-residents, the fee is $60 and all permits must be renewed every four years.

“Maine has an excellent process in place,” wrote Bowler in response to e-mailed questions. “We have good people who care about what they do and take pride in their work to make our process a fair and safe one.”

At least 11 states have more stringent requirements than Maine, according to the Web site www.USACarry.com, which compiles data about concealed firearm permits. In California, for instance, an applicant must demonstrate a logical reason to hold a concealed firearm permit. Concealed firearm permits are not issued at all in the bordering states of Illinois and Wisconsin.

Maine still is stricter than most of the remaining states, said Bowler.

Some states also recognize permits from other states that have equal or more stringent requirements, he said. Maine recognizes permits from only three states — Delaware, South Dakota and Louisiana. Fifteen states recognize permits from Maine, according to USACarry.com.

In Maine, municipalities are designated the right to issue concealed firearm permits, though responsibility is often delegated to a town or city’s police force or the Maine State Police.

Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, is the person who sells application materials and permits to municipalities throughout Maine. Schwartz said he has sold permits to about 85 percent of the towns and cities in Maine in the past several years, though he suspects that the percentage of municipalities who still issue permits is lower than that.

“If a town stopped issuing after I sold them permits, I’d have no way of knowing that,” he said, adding that there has been an increase in the number of permits he sells over the past six or eight months. “I don’t know why that is, but when there’s talk about guns and people wanting to do away with them, obviously people get charged up,” he said.

Schwartz, the former police chief for the city of South Portland, said Maine’s system of issuing concealed weapons permits works “surprisingly well,” a position supported by the fact that there have been no major changes to the law since 1993 and no amendments since 2005.

“The question that always comes up is, ‘How many people who have been issued concealed weapons permits actually commit crimes?”’ said Schwartz. “There is no real system in Maine that could provide that information, but I would say it’s very few. A lot of these permits are issued basically for hunters.”

Bowler agreed that there is no state or national agency that tracks violent crimes by concealed firearm permit holders.

2nd amendment trampled

George Smith of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine said the very concept of concealed firearm permits is an infringement on constitutional rights.

“This system is an unreasonable burden on law-abiding citizens and [the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine] has been trying to get rid of it for years,” he said. “What you have here is an expensive, complex system of issuing permits to law-abiding citizens when criminals don’t pay any attention to it. It’s not just about constitutional rights. It’s an issue of practical common sense.”

In the recent debate in the Maine Legislature over whether concealed firearm permits should be allowed in national parks, many people arguing against it missed a fundamental point, Smith said.

“The question is do you feel safe in Falmouth or any other town?” he said. “The same rules [that were under debate for Acadia] apply in Falmouth. In fact, the rules in Acadia will be more restrictive than they are in municipalities.”

In the Acadia bill, the Legislature opted to align with a new federal law that allows concealed weapons to be carried in national parks. Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, in whose district lies Acadia National Park, had proposed the opposite.

“It seems to me to make [Acadia] a more dangerous place,” he said earlier this month. “That’s the wrong direction.”

Challenges to the concealed firearm permit law are not uncommon. In 2009, Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, proposed allowing the use of court records to deem a person’s mental fitness, but that bill failed in committee. In 2007, a bill sponsored by Sen. Karl Turner, R-Cumberland, proposed to require a higher level of handgun safety proficiency, but that bill also failed.

Bowler said one way to improve the system would be the addition of a computer database of permit-holders that’s accessible 24 hours a day.

“Unfortunately, these changes come at a cost and for now there are no funds to pay for any improvements,” he said.

A changed opinion

Portland Police Chief James Craig, who came to Maine last year after 28 years as a police officer in Los Angeles, said his attitude toward concealed firearm permits has changed completely during his short tenure here. Having come from a place where very few concealed firearm permits are granted, he quickly denied the first permit application that came across his desk in Portland.

“When I first arrived here I took a pretty hard line on the issuance of these permits,” he said. “In places like New York and Los Angeles, it’s certainly almost an act of Congress to offer a permit to a community member. After a good wise counsel I realized that this was not California so I quickly rethought my position.”

The 12-square-mile division of Los Angeles where Craig was working suffers more than 40 homicides a year. The state of Maine’s yearly average is 24 and in Portland, there are typically fewer than five.

“When you look at the state of Maine, there are good, responsible people who live here and a very low level of violent crime,” said Craig. “It’s been a cultural change for me, given where I’ve come from.”

Craig says he scrutinizes every concealed firearm permit application in the city of Portland, about 15 per month. Despite his softening on granting the permits, he said he still uses rigid standards. Anyone with any criminal history involving alcohol, for example, is likely to be denied by Craig.

“I take that part of my job very seriously,” he said. “If you show a lack of responsibility … I don’t approve your permit.”

Schwartz said if there were a problem with Maine’s concealed firearm permit system, it would be obvious.

“The proof is in the pudding,” he said. “If we had a lot of people with concealed weapons permits committing crimes, you’d know we have a problem. As long as they’re not abused there’s nothing wrong.”

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