AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine House of Representatives on Tuesday overwhelmingly endorsed an amended bill that would exempt personal information about concealed firearms permit holders from Maine’s Freedom of Access Act.
After rejecting by a 111-35 vote a motion to accept a minority report that would have kept much of the information public with some exemptions, House members endorsed an amended version of Augusta Republican Rep. Corey Wilson’s bill by a 106-40 vote.
The vote comes after weeks of hearings and debate over whether that permit information should be part of the public record or accessible only to law enforcement and town officials who issue the permits.
The vote tally Tuesday was important because the bill needs a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Legislature to be enacted under an emergency preamble that would allow it to become law as soon as it’s signed by Gov. Paul LePage. The bill also requires passage by two-thirds votes because it creates an unfunded mandate for municipalities.
Tuesday’s House tally gave supporters of the bill five votes more than the two-thirds needed, but the measure’s fate in the Senate is less certain.
“I was pleased with the vote but I’m never comfortable until something is signed by the governor,” said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, who lobbied in support of the bill.
Trahan said others, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, were lobbying aggressively against the bill and a five-vote margin in the House wasn’t a slam dunk by any stretch.
“This isn’t over, I don’t think,” Trahan said. “It’s close and too close for my comfort.”
Wilson said he wouldn’t predict what the state Senate would do but Tuesday was taking comfort his House colleagues, including many Democrats, voted to close the records.
“This definitely sends a signal to the Senate that the House is going to support this measure and I hope the Senate will follow through as well,” Wilson said after the vote.
Wilson’s bill came in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn., and a subsequent request by the Bangor Daily News. The newspaper, using Maine’s open records laws, requested access to concealed handgun permit data in Maine by filing requests across the state to issuing agencies, including the Maine State Police. The BDN later rescinded its request.
Despite repeated statements from the newspaper that it had no intention of publishing the data “wholesale,” gun rights advocates said people with permits could be put in danger if their information was released.
The reaction followed a New York newspaper’s decision to gather handgun permit data and publish it in an online map. That action sent a wave of fear through Maine concealed permit holders, many of whom said they worried their guns would become targets for thieves or that those who had permits for protection, including victims of domestic violence, would be put at risk if their abusers knew they were armed.
The Legislature previously passed a short-term emergency law that closed the records from public review, but that measure is set to expire on April 30.
Several lawmakers speaking in opposition to the bill Tuesday dismissed those arguments, noting Maine already has a law that allows victims of domestic violence to protect their addresses and other information from public disclosure.
It is estimated that about 30,000 people, including 5,000 nonresidents, hold Maine concealed handgun permits.
Tuesday’s House debate pitted gun-rights and privacy advocates against those who said keeping the permit records open provides an important check and counterbalance that keeps the government honest and fair when issuing the permits.
Other lawmakers said they rejected the notion that Maine needed 30,000 people secretly carrying handguns to keep the state safe.
“The question behind this issue for me is what is the belief or the assumption that we need 30,000 people to have secret guns?” Rep. Paul McGowan, D-Cape Neddick, asked his colleagues. “That they should be able to walk in our communities, go in schools, be in our stores but to keep it secret about whether they have some kind of permit? It feels to me like a request based upon fear, that we must live our lives in fear that somehow people might know we have guns — I reject that fear, I reject a future that says we have to have 30,000 people in the state of Maine that have secret permits — I reject this fear and I reject this future for our state.”
The bill also allows for the release of some aggregate data on permit holders, including the total number issued, expiration dates and the town where a permit is issued. It also calls on the Maine State Police to report back to the Legislature on the issue in 2014 with more comprehensive aggregate data and a status report.
State police only issue a portion of the permits in Maine, including all permits for nonresidents and for residents of the state’s Unorganized Territory.
Local police chiefs and municipal elected officials also issue permits in some instances.
To receive a permit, applicants must pass both a psychiatric and criminal background check, submit to fingerprinting and be deemed of sound moral character by the issuing authority.
The bill, LD 345, will move down the hall to the state Senate where the measure also needs two-thirds support to become an emergency law.
If passed there and signed by LePage, the bill would take effect immediately.
Wilson said Tuesday’s House vote sends a strong bipartisan message.
“We, as a body, not a party, are going to stand behind not only the rights of gun owners but victims currently and future victims — their rights to be protected,” Wilson said.
Democrats also praised Tuesday’s vote as a bipartisan compromise.
“The explicit goal of Maine’s Freedom of Access law is to provide access to public records while protecting the privacy rights of individual citizens,” Assistant House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said Tuesday in a prepared statement. “The compromise passed today strikes that critical balance.”
BDN political analyst Robert Long contributed to this report.