AUGUSTA, Maine — State senators on Wednesday agreed with their counterparts in the House of Representatives and passed a bill that will shut down a set of public records that have been open for more than 30 years.
In a 27-8 vote, the Senate approved LD 345, which makes confidential most of the information on concealed-handgun permits in Maine. For a complete listing see the Senate’s roll call here.
The Maine House on Tuesday approved the measure 106-40. Both bodies have achieved the two-thirds majority the measure needs to take effect as soon as Gov. Paul LePage signs the bill.
The bill faces one more vote each in the House and Senate before it is sent to LePage. He is expected to sign the measure, which pits the public’s right to government information against the privacy rights of individuals who have been granted permission to carry concealed handguns.
“This is a bill about privacy. This is not a bill about guns,” Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, said, introducing the bill.
Valentino is the Senate chairwoman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, which crafted the final version of the bill, first offered by Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta.
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 under Maine’s open-records law.
And while the newspaper 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 that showed concealed-handgun permit-holders’ homes.
Supporters cited victims of domestic violence as an example of those who might have gun permits and whose identities ought to be protected.
The move to seal the records followed a nationwide trend as other states, including North Carolina, New York and Virginia, approved similar measures.
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 had the Maine State Police, a national coalition of social workers and the city of Bangor, which passed a resolve in support of the bill, Valentino said.
She noted the bill did two important things: It closes the records to all but law enforcement and it directs Maine State Police to issue a report on permit-holders including age, sex, ZIP code and municipality. State police also would determine the best way to create a statewide database of permit-holders and a uniform permit design, much like a driver’s license.
State police currently issue about half of the estimated 30,000 permits in Maine, including about 8,000 permits for non-residents, Valentino said. The others are issued by local police chiefs, town and city councils and boards of selectmen. During testimony on the bill, John Morris, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, said permits varied in appearance and what kind of information was on them depending 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. State police don’t even know how many people have permits “because we have no aggregate data,” she said.
The report on aggregate data will come back to the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee in January 2014. The committee will decide whether additional legislation is needed to create a statewide database and a uniform permitting system, Valentino said.
But 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 noted that permit data was intentionally left open as a check on government, to ensure applicants were treated fairly and not discriminated against.
“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.”
Gerzofsky said giving all that power to the government was troubling for him. He also noted, despite testimony that state police could do the aggregate study within their existing budget, it was going to be another job for them.
“We don’t fund them for it. No, we just tell them we want them to do it,” Gerzofsky said. He questioned what other police work would not get done because of it.
He also noted the irony in keeping a centralized database on concealed weapons, because 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.”
He said the effort to seal the records in Maine was emotional and “knee-jerk.”
In the 30-plus years that Maine’s data was open, there had been no documented problems with the system, Gerzofsky said.
“It’s a reaction to a reaction to a reaction,” Gerzofsky said. “We never really had a problem in our state.”
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 executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said getting the records sealed was his group’s top priority for the legislative session.
Trahan voiced relief Wednesday that the bill was moving forward, just days prior to the expiration of a temporary law that had sealed the data until April 30.
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,” he said after the vote.