AUGUSTA, Maine — Republican legislative leaders held what they called an “emergency press conference” Thursday afternoon to decry the Bangor Daily News’ statewide request for information about concealed weapons permit holders. They also called on legislative Democrats to fast-track a bill that’s meant to keep that data secret.
The BDN on Wednesday requested the information under the Maine Freedom of Access Act.
The newspaper’s request for the public records states it “does not intend to publish wholesale identifying information included in the list.” Anthony Ronzio, the BDN’s director of news and new media, wrote in an editor’s note published Thursday on the BDN website that the newspaper intended to request the data anyway, but that a bill submitted by Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, to keep concealed weapons permit information secret sped it up.
“The BDN has never had any intention to release identifying information about permit holders and said so in our request,” wrote Ronzio. “We recognize how sensitive this information is, and made sure police agencies knew of this intent. We believe the wholesale publication of permit holder information, as was done recently by a newspaper in New York, is irresponsible.”
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said Republicans gathered to speak up for the rights of gun owners and for public safety. He accused the newspaper of “politicizing” the issue at a time when Maine lawmakers are dealing with as many as 80 pieces of proposed legislation related to gun violence in the wake of the mass school shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school on Dec. 14, 2012.
“It’s time to stop harassing law-abiding gun owners,” Fredette said. “We would ask that Democratic leadership speed the process along and hold a public hearing so that this can get acted on immediately.”
Senate Minority Leader Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, urged the newspaper to withdraw its requests for the information. Fredette also said one reason for Thursday’s news conference was to “respectfully request” that the BDN withdraw its request for the information to allow legislators to deal thoughtfully with Wilson’s proposed legislation.
“Maine people expect much more than this out of one of their major daily newspapers,” said Thibodeau. “This is beneath the Bangor Daily News to engage in this activity in my opinion, and we would encourage them to abandon this process and let us go about our work.”
Sen. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, ranking Republican on the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, agreed.
“We on the Criminal Justice Committee are trying to deal with a number of bills that have been submitted,” said Plummer. “When you throw this kind of action in the middle of that, it is very counterproductive for our committee.”
Gov. Paul LePage, who posted an image of his concealed weapon permit on his Twitter account, joined Republicans in criticizing the FOAA request as a provocative act by the newspaper.
“If newspapers would like to know who has concealed weapons permits, then they should know the governor has his,” LePage said. “I have serious concerns that BDN’s request will incite fear among gun owners and nongun owners alike regarding their safety. There is no reason why these records should be public, and I encourage the Legislature to act quickly to make this personal information confidential. As I have said, the rights of law-abiding citizens to own firearms will not be questioned while I am governor. That is especially true for those who respect the law enough to go through the process of obtaining a permit to carry concealed.”
Fredette acknowledged that, even on an emergency basis, the Legislature could not enact Wilson’s bill before the five-business-day deadline for law enforcement agencies to comply with the Freedom of Access Act request.
Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty also attended Thursday’s event, saying the administrative costs associated with gathering the information requested would create a hardship for some law enforcement agencies.
Legislators, including Wilson, emphasized that concealed weapons permit holders are law-abiding citizens, in response to media questions about whether Maine residents’ names and other personal information, available on hunting licenses, voter and vehicle registration lists, also should be exempt from Freedom of Access Act requests.
Assistant Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Aroostook, said in general he isn’t in favor of the release of people’s personal information, but that he wanted to wait until the public weighs in on Wilson’s bill before supporting or opposing it. In response to Republicans’ request that legislative leaders speed the bill along, Jackson said both parties agreed Thursday to table it in the Senate, where it was up to be referred to committee. He expected the bill to be moved Tuesday to a committee, likely either the Judiciary or Criminal Justice committee.
Jackson added that he doesn’t know the long-term effects of making concealed weapon permit information secret and acknowledged that if someone wants a list of gun owners, there are other ways to obtain that data.
“I just don’t know all the implications,” said Jackson. “Hunting licenses are wide-open and subject to the department having to give up the list of everyone who was buying hunting licenses.”
According to Doug Rafferty, spokesman for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, more than 177,000 residential hunting licenses were issued to Mainers in 2011, compared with approximately 30,000 concealed weapons permits that year.
Assistant House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, who has been the Democratic legislative leadership’s primary spokesman on gun violence issues, expressed initial support for Wilson’s proposal in a release Thursday.
“At first glance, I’m very supportive of Rep. Wilson’s bill to protect the rights of concealed weapons permit holders,” McCabe said. “Seeking a balanced approach to protect the public interest is important, but sensitive information about permit holders should also be protected. … The bill needs judicious and thorough review that provides all stakeholders with a chance to weigh in. Maine people believe in the right to know, and we take that charge very seriously.”
Maine State Republican Party Chairman Rich Cebra, a former legislator from Naples who attended but did not speak at Thursday’s event, issued a statement Thursday titled “Second Amendment Under Attack,” in which he sought donations to the party.
“We can’t stand idly by as the press, liberal politicians and anti-gun special interest groups control the debate and control the message in the media,” he wrote, suggesting that supporters send contributions to “help us fight back.”
Rachel Healy, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said that though the organization hasn’t reviewed Wilson’s bill in detail, in general it favors keeping public records public. As for the BDN’s FOAA request, she said it was legal.
“At this time, these records are available to the public just like other government permits,” said Healy. “There is nothing to raise our concern about any sort of misdoing.”