AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers heard hours of arguments Monday about the right to self-defense versus the state’s obligation to protect the public as they considered proposals to loosen laws dictating when and where someone can carry a concealed gun.
Bills seeking to rewrite Maine’s concealed weapons permit system are introduced seemingly every legislative session. But with a new Republican majority in the State House, advocates for gun owners’ rights hope for more success this year.
Under current law, average Mainers who want to carry a gun hidden from view must apply for a concealed-firearms permit and even then are prohibited from bringing a gun into schools, courthouses, the Maine State House and other locations.
One proposal under consideration by the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, LD 1347, would allow permit holders to carry concealed firearms into state parks, establishments where alcohol is served, at labor strikes and the State House.
Maine law allows the owners of establishments that serve alcohol to prohibit guns. Bill sponsor Rep. Richard Cebra, R-Naples, said he included bars and restaurants in his bill as a talking point for the committee.
“I included them all so that you, as a committee, can determine which ones you feel are valid,” Cebra said.
Supporters of Cebra’s bill and others who spoke Monday said the Maine and U.S. constitutions guarantee citizens the right to arm themselves in self-defense. Echoing a refrain often heard in gun control debates, they said criminals don’t abide by laws so restricting a person’s right to carry a concealed weapon only hurts innocent citizens.
“I have been waiting for a bill like this to come along to eliminate the list of places where law-abiding citizens like myself can carry a concealed weapon,” said Jonathan Yellowbear of Litchfield.
But critics of the bill said recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings reaffirmed Americans’ right to arm themselves within their own homes, not necessarily in a public building or at a bar. The courts also have upheld states’ rights to restrict concealed weapons.
“What we’re talking about with this bill is bringing guns into areas of the state where for decades they have been prohibited, and for good reason,” said Bill Harwood, representing the organization Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence.
Another bill, LD 658, essentially would flip Maine’s policy regarding concealed firearms. The measure, sponsored by Republican Rep. Dale Crafts of Lisbon, would allow Maine residents to carry concealed weapons without a permit.
Permits still would be required, however, for anyone wanting to pack heat in six specific places, including schools, polling places on Election Day, hydroelectric or nuclear power plants or restaurants that serve alcohol but are posted to prohibit guns.
But Maine State Police Lt. David Bowler, speaking on behalf of the Maine Department of Public Safety, pointed out that Crafts’ bill also would repeal the prohibition on people carrying brass knuckles, switchblades or other dangerous weapons. Additionally, the bill would appear to allow permit holders to carry those items into schools.
“This language is of concern to the Department of Public Safety and law enforcement officers across the state,” Bowler said. “It would have a negative effect on public safety.”
The Maine Sheriffs Association also raised concerns about Crafts’ bill and instead testified in support of keeping the concealed firearms permitting system.
The committee also heard testimony on bills that would allow concealed firearms in the State House, to expand Maine’s reciprocity agreements with other states that offer concealed-firearms permits, and to allow employees with concealed-weapons permits to keep firearms in their cars while at work as long as the car is locked and the gun kept out of sight.
The committee is expected to hold a work session on the bills Friday.