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State committee tables bill that would hide Maine handgun permit data

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
The State House in Augusta, as seen Monday, March 11, 2013.
By Scott Thistle, Sun Journal

AUGUSTA – In a 6-5 vote Thursday, lawmakers on the Maine Legislature’s Judiciary Committee tabled a bill that makes confidential the information on permits for concealed handguns in Maine.

Much to the disappointment of the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, several lawmakers on the committee said they wanted more information before they voted on moving the bill to the full Legislature.

“I really wanted them to move this bill ( LD 345) today,” Wilson said after the vote.

The vote came during a work session on the bill Tuesday and after the panel’s co-chairman Rep. Charles Priest, D-Brunswick, proposed an amendment to the bill that would have kept the information on most permits public.

Priest’s amendment would have allowed several classes of individuals to keep their permit information confidential.

Those included law enforcement or retired law enforcement, victims of domestic violence, witnesses or former witnesses in criminal proceedings, members of a jury or a grand jury and anyone who filed an affidavit with the permit issuing authority over concern their life would be in danger were their permit data made public.

Other lawmakers said they wanted more time to study what other states did regarding concealed handgun permits. Several on the committee said they wanted to move the bill along quickly.

In February, the Legislature passed and Gov. Paul LePage signed into law a temporary measure that shielded handgun permit data in Maine until April 30 in order to give lawmakers a chance to craft a thoughtful bill.

The Senate passed the bill 33-0, with two senators absent, while the House passed the bill 129-11, with 11 not voting on the measure.

The emergency measure came about after the Bangor Daily News made requests for handgun permit data under the state’s open records law to law enforcement agencies statewide. Handgun permit data had been part of the public record in Maine since 1981.

On Thursday, Judy Meyer, a managing editor for the Sun Journal, addressed the panel as the co-chair of the state’s Right to Know Advisory Committee.

Meyer presented lawmakers with some background on how the information was first made public and noted one of the reasons was to protect permit applicants from discrimination by issuing authorities.

At the time, Meyer said, many of the groups now supporting closing access to the records were supporters of the idea it should be public information. Those groups included the NRA, the Maine Chiefs of Police Association and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.

“They were not just unopposed but strongly supportive,” Meyer said.

She also noted the decision to close the public record was never put before the Right-to-Know Advisory Committee and the committee would be happy to look at the issues raised around the permit data being public and would advise the Legislature.

Some lawmakers noted the law making the records open had been on the books since 1981 with little issues surrounding it and few examples of how the information being public had created problems.

But supporters of closing the information down said concern over the data was heightened after a newspaper in New York state created an online map including the addresses of concealed handgun permit holders in their coverage area in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.

Some lawmakers said the Bangor newspaper’s request soon after triggered fear among permit holders in Maine, even though the newspaper repeated several times it had no intent of publishing “wholesale” the data on the permits. It also had no plans of replicating the mapping project done by the New York newspaper.

Still, gun rights advocates said the risk that could happen in Maine still existed and the data needed to be sealed.

Rep. Lisa Villa, D-Harrison, said she believes the state’s open records law – the Freedom of Access Act – was intended to keep government transparent.

“I don’t believe the intent was to allow the collection and publication of data on our law abiding citizens,” Villa said.

After the hearing Maine State Police Lt. Scott Ireland, who also spoke to the committee, affirmed Villa’s statement noting those applying for and being granted concealed handgun permits in Maine were among the state’s most upstanding citizens.

Ireland also said State Police were satisfied with amendments to the bill offered by Wilson that would allow law enforcement to have access to the handgun permit data. Wilson amendment would also allow for the release of aggregate data permit for the purpose of research while protecting the permit holder’s privacy.

Wilson said he did not support Priest suggested amendment because it doesn’t apply the state law with uniformity and it wouldn’t protect all those who may have a concealed handgun permit. Even victims of domestic violence or rape, who may not have reported the crimes against them to authorities.

“If you are genuinely interested in protecting them, then there’s no way equitably to do unless it’s across the board for everybody,” Wilson said. “Because there’s a huge group of people that will not be protected just because they do not report those crimes and that is a huge issue.”

Still others said the track record in Maine shows no need to close the information from the public.

Shenna Bellows, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said while her organization is a strongly supports the right to privacy, they were in opposition to shielding all handgun permit data.

“Who the government decides to let have a concealed weapon permit and who they deny is a deep matter of public interest,” Bellows said. “To preserve confidence in the concealed weapon permitting process and to prevent any abuses of that process it’s really important for the public to have access to those records.”

Bellows said she believes lawmakers should be able to craft a compromise that balances privacy with the public’s right to know.

The bill is likely to come back to the committee again next week.

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