Maine Senate votes 27-8 to exempt gun permit holders’ personal info from public scrutiny

Posted April 24, 2013, at 12:18 p.m.
Last modified April 24, 2013, at 6:54 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Senate voted 27-8 Wednesday in favor of a bill that would shield personal information about concealed firearms permit holders from the public.

Wednesday’s vote in the Senate follows Tuesday’s 106-40 House vote in favor of LD 345, which was sponsored by Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta.

Both bodies have achieved the two-thirds majority the measure needs to become effective immediately after Gov. Paul LePage signs the bill. LePage is expected to endorse the measure, which spurred debate by those advocating for the public’s right to government information against defenders of the privacy rights of individuals who have applied for and been granted permission to carry a handgun hidden on their person.

“This is a bill about privacy. This is not a bill about guns,” state Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, said as she introduced the bill Wednesday to the full Senate.

Valentino is the Senate chairwoman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, which crafted the final version of the bill, first offered, then amended, by Wilson.

The bill, which arose in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn., was expedited by the Legislature after the Bangor Daily News requested access to handgun permit data in Maine under the state’s open records law.

While the newspaper, which rescinded its request, maintained it would not publish “wholesale” the information, gun and privacy rights advocates said they worried the release of the information could put some people in danger. They also suggested that the newspaper would replicate a project done by the Journal Tribune, a New York publication, that created an online map showing concealed handgun permit holders’ homes.

Supporters also held up as an example victims of domestic violence who may have gun permits.

The move to seal the records followed a nationwide trend as other states with open handgun permit databases, including North Carolina, New York and Virginia, considered or passed legislation to shield personal information from the general public.

During her speech on the Senate floor Wednesday, Valentino said the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence had praised the proposal to seal the records. So did the state police, a national coalition of social workers and the Bangor City Council, which passed a resolve in support of the bill, Valentino said.

She said the bill did two important things: It closed the records about personal information of permit holders to all but law enforcement and it directs the Maine State Police to complete a report that will collect statistical and sortable aggregate data on permit holders including age, sex, ZIP code or municipality. The report also would determine the best way to create a statewide database of permit holders and create a uniformed permit design, much like a driver’s license.

State police currently issue just more than half of the estimated 30,000 permits in Maine, including about 8,000 permits for nonresidents, Valentino said. The others are issued by local police chiefs, town or city councils, and boards of selectmen. During testimony on the bill, Maine Public Safety Commissioner John Morris said permits varied in appearance and the information listed on them depended on which agency issued them. Some, Morris quipped, might even be written on a “brown paper bag.”

Valentino said collecting and consolidating information on the permits was important because the state police don’t even know how many people possess permits.

“They do not know,” Valentino said. “Because we have no aggregate data, that nobody compiles from other towns.”

That report will come back to the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee next January and the committee will decide whether additional law is needed at that time, Valentino said.

Opponents of the bill said it reeks of a government-controlled state, without any outside oversight. Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, detailed a history of Maine’s concealed handgun permit law and pointed out that permit data were intentionally left open as a check on government — to ensure applicants were treated fairly and not discriminated against. He said that at the time all those who now oppose the records being open supported that notion.

“At the time, the debate went between the House and the Senate to set up a system that the people were actually going to have a relationship with,” Gerzofsky said. “It wasn’t going to be just Big Brother, just the government that concealed all these things and they were the only ones with the information.”

Speaking Wednesday from the floor of the Senate, Gerzofsky said giving all that power to the government troubles him. He also questioned whether it’s appropriate to assign another task to the Maine State Police without budgeting for it.

“We don’t fund them … we just tell them we want them to do it,” Gerzofsky said, wondering what other police work would not get done because of it.

He also pointed out the irony in keeping a centralized database on concealed weapons as it seems to contradict the idea of protecting the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.

“I thought that something we never wanted to do was get a centralized database of who has a concealed weapon and who doesn’t,” Gerzofsky said. “So, I find it a little bewildering that we do now.”

Others opposed to closing the records included the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the Maine Press Association.

David Trahan, a former state senator and now the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said the records seal was his group’s top priority for the current legislative session. On Wednesday, Trahan voiced some relief the bill was moving forward, just days before the expiration of a temporary law that had sealed the data until April 30.

“That was a good strong vote out of the Senate,” Trahan said. “A little stronger than we expected. But I’m glad this issue is almost resolved, to be honest with you.”

Trahan said the debate, for both sides, had been emotionally draining. “We hope once this debate is done we can get back to doing some of the other things that are important to our membership, including protection of our natural resources,” Trahan said after the vote.

The bill faces one more vote in both the House and the Senate before it will be sent to LePage, who is expected to sign the measure.

BDN political analyst Robert Long contributed to this report.

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