Maine House approves significant reforms to concealed weapon permitting process

JIM URQUHART | REUTERS
Posted March 27, 2014, at 3:25 p.m.
Last modified March 27, 2014, at 8:56 p.m.
Rep. Timothy Marks, D-Pittston.
Courtesy Maine House Democrats
Rep. Timothy Marks, D-Pittston.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill seeking to improve Maine’s concealed weapon permitting process by ensuring adequate background checks and to create a confidential database of permit holders was given initial approval by the House on Thursday.

The bill, LD 222, sponsored by Rep. Timothy Marks, D-Pittston, a retired state trooper, had been hammered out in committee for more than a year. It passed along party lines, 82-54, with majority Democrats joined by a handful of Republicans.

Debate over the bill also represented the second attempt in as many years by the House GOP to create a legal right for all Mainers to carry concealed firearms without a permit.

Last year, they fell just one vote short of passing a similar bill by Rep. Aaron Libby, R-Waterboro, to establish universal concealed carry, dubbed “constitutional carry” by supporters. On Wednesday night, Republicans tried to attach a similar provision — also spearheaded by Libby — but were rebuked by majority Democrats, 76-59.

With constitutional carry off the table, Republicans opted to oppose the bill aimed at modernizing the state’s concealed carry permit application system. But that wasn’t the only reason they opposed the measure.

In Maine, the concealed carry permitting process is splintered. Municipalities, local police departments and the state Department of Public Safety all are eligible to issue permits. There is neither a uniform application or permit card nor a central repository of permit information.

Authorities in Maine can’t say how many active concealed weapon permits exist statewide.

Marks’ bill would take issuing authority away from municipalities that do not employ a full-time police chief, barring elected officials with no law enforcement training from distributing concealed carry permits.

State police would handle applications for residents of towns without their own law enforcement agency, while local police departments and county sheriffs also would be authorized to process applications. However, the responsibility for criminal and mental health background checks would fall solely to state police.

Rep. Ricky Long, R-Sherman, said he opposed the bill because it takes control away from the state’s small towns. He said selectmen often have a better understanding of whether local applicants should carry concealed weapons than public safety officials in Augusta.

“We’re mandating that 97 communities can no longer issue permits,” Long said. “We gain nothing out of here, other than giving the police more control.”

But a study by the Maine State Police in December revealed that roughly 44 percent of municipalities were not conducting the required background checks. State police Lt. Scott Ireland said the bill is a “step forward,” and that handing responsibility for background checks to the Department of Public Safety is the only way to ensure that all the relevant background checks are conducted.

“These are records that only law enforcement can obtain,” he said Thursday. “They are checks that [selectmen] cannot do, as civilians.”

For example, Ireland said, if an applicant in one town has lived in and been convicted of crimes in several others, civilians would not have access to complete criminal records. Law enforcement does, he said.

Marks, the bill’s sponsor, said the issue of taking authority away from selectmen is a red herring.

“Selectmen are not elected to give gun permits. There’s no training to do background checks,” he said. “Selectmen aren’t notified of domestic violence calls, of drunk-and-disorderlies. Cops are.”

Marks also said he was disappointed, but not surprised, to see support for his bill fall along partisan lines. He said he knew some Republicans would try to turn the bill into a vehicle for constitutional carry.

“They wanted another shot at this issue, they were close last year,” he said. “They took their shot again, and they missed.”

The bill would also create a confidential central database for concealed carry permit information, accessibly only to law enforcement. This system is meant to streamline permit checks and facilitate permit reciprocity with other states.

Ireland and Marks said other states have been less likely to honor Maine concealed carry permits because there was no easy way for them to validate the permit holder.

The bill also closes a loophole that allowed out-of-state residents barred from carrying concealed handguns in their own states to obtain permits in Maine, begins the process of creating a uniform permit and application, and increases the application fee while also extending the permit’s validity from four to six years.

Last, the bill would direct all revenue from concealed carry permit applications back to the issuing authority. Currently, a portion of concealed carry revenue is sent to the state’s general fund, a scenario that has irked state police, who say lack of staff and funding were responsible for application backlogs that left some applicants waiting months for permits that were legally required to be decided within 60 days. Those backlogs recently were cleared.

Marks’ bill faces additional votes in the Senate and House. Republican Gov. Paul LePage has not yet weighed in on the bill, according to his staff.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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