AUGUSTA, Maine — Some legislators have grown wary about further debate this session over changes to state gun control laws in light of a bizarre incident during which a Maine lawmaker allegedly pointed a loaded gun at another man.
Although there is no direct connection between the recent arrest of Rep. Frederick Wintle, R-Garland, and a handful of Republican-led bills aimed at loosening Maine’s concealed weapons permit laws, the emotional connection is inevitable.
House members on Wednesday voted down LD 658, a bill that would allow Maine residents to carry concealed weapons without a permit except in specific places such as schools. Another bill, LD 446, which would grant a law enforcement officer or retired law enforcement officer who lives in another state to carry a firearm in Maine without a concealed weapons permit, passed in the House.
Neither vote was preceded by much discussion.
The two more controversial bills, LD 932 and LD 1347, which among other things would allow those with a valid concealed weapons permit to bring a firearm into the State House, were not acted on Wednesday. They are likely to carry over to the next legislative session.
Rep. Dale Crafts, R-Lisbon, who sponsored both LD 658 and LD 932, said Wednesday he wants a more substantive debate on State House security, which he expects to take place in the fall.
“It’s wide open here,” he said. “I could carry a weapon unchecked every day and so could others. That’s not a safe environment.”
There are no metal detectors in use that would indicate if a State House visitor had a weapon, although that could change as early as next week, officials said.
Still, many lawmakers, Republicans included, are uncomfortable with the idea of bringing guns into the State House. Even Crafts said if security were improved, he likely would abandon his bill to allow concealed weapons inside the Capitol.
House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, said the incident involving Wintle, who allegedly threatened a man with a loaded gun last weekend, brings extra emotion to legislation that already has evoked strong emotions.
“We want to have a thoughtful debate about gun control and that might be difficult right now,” she said.
Lance Dutson, spokesman for House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, agreed that the two bills related to carrying firearms in the State House are likely to be held over to the next session. Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, a retired Maine state trooper and a member of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said the timing probably is not right for the debate.
Legislation seeking to rewrite Maine’s concealed weapons permit system is introduced nearly every session, but this year a Republican majority in the State House had advocates for gun owners’ rights hopeful that changes could actually happen.
Many believe the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees unfettered access to owning and carrying guns, but states have varying degrees of restrictions and the U.S Supreme Court has upheld states’ rights.
Last month, lawmakers held hours of testimony on both sides of the argument over loosening laws that dictate how a concealed weapons permit holder can carry a weapon.
Gun-rights supporters said they need to protect themselves from criminals, who don’t abide by laws. Restricting a person’s right to carry a concealed weapon only hurts innocent citizens, they claimed.
LD 932 passed through the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee with an 8-5 recommendation that it be passed by the full Legislature.
Most Democrats had opposed bills aimed at loosening gun control laws long before Wintle’s arrest.
“I think it probably heightens the public awareness, but it doesn’t make us understand anything we didn’t before,” Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, referring to the impact of Wintle’s arrest on the gun-control debate. “The incident involving Representative Wintle has more to do with what appears to be an unfortunate turn in his personality.”
Wintle was arrested on Saturday after he allegedly pulled a loaded .22-caliber pistol from his waistband and threatened a man outside a Dunkin’ Donuts in Waterville, police said. Wintle made his initial court appearance on Monday on charges of carrying a concealed weapon and criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon.
The judge on Monday ordered Wintle to undergo a mental evaluation.
Fellow lawmakers indicated that Wintle’s behavior had grown increasingly bizarre in the days and weeks before his arrest. He since has been barred from the State House and is not allowed access to firearms.
No decision has been made on whether steps will be taken to remove Wintle from the Legislature. The Maine Constitution allows each house of the Legislature to expel one of its own members with a two-thirds vote.