AUGUSTA, Maine — Dozens of people flooded legislative committee rooms Tuesday afternoon for a public hearing on LD 345, a bill to exempt information about concealed-weapons permit holders from Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, which ensures public access to government records.
The hearing is the first on dozens of bills related to gun ownership and gun control submitted during this year’s legislative session, including several that would affect the state’s concealed-handgun permit system. The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee will hold hearings on most of those bills, including LD 997, a proposal by Senate President Justin Alfond to limit the amount of ammunition that can be contained in a firearm’s magazine, which was referred to committee Tuesday.
The hearing on LD 345 went to the Judiciary Committee because of the public information implications.
Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, lead sponsor of the bill, framed his argument in terms of a public safety issue, particularly for victims of sexual assault or domestic violence whose attackers might stalk them.
“We as legislators should want to protect the public,” said Wilson. “These individuals are not criminals. They are not the individuals that we need to fear and they need to be protected. What is the point of having a concealed weapons permit if everyone knows you have it?”
Wilson’s bill, “An Act to Ensure the Confidentiality of Concealed Weapons Permit Holder Information,” would keep personal and identifying information of concealed-weapons permit holders confidential and ban a person who has that information from redistributing it.
Wilson’s bill would make permanent an emergency piece of legislation put into law earlier this year after the Bangor Daily News requested and then rescinded its request for concealed-weapons permit holder information.
During his presentation of the bill, Wilson offered a few amendments, including that some aggregate information be open to release. Wilson’s amendment, which has not yet been published, would also remove the provision in the bill that makes it illegal to circulate permit information that has already been obtained. He also changed the title of his bill to reference “concealed handgun permits” because that is what they are actually called.
At least 100 people filled the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee room and two adjoining rooms for Tuesday’s hearing. The majority of the people present wore stickers that read “Please Support LD 345, Keep your hands off my concealed carry information!”
Most of those who testified favored Wilson’s bill — with a few exceptions.
Rep. Paul McGowan, D-York, pointed out that some people have legitimate reasons for wanting information on who has permits and who doesn’t. One such scenario, he said, is when a parent sends his or her child to another family’s home to visit.
“I would ask that you take deep consideration of this other side,” he said. “I have constituents who want to know that you’re thinking about their rights. There are many of my constituents who do not think of guns as a friendly thing. They think of guns as a threat.”
Michael Mahoney, a lobbyist for the Maine Press Association, said the association opposes giving “preferential treatment” to concealed-weapons permit holders by shielding their data from public view when numerous other government-issued licenses and permits don’t have the same protection.
“These concealed-handgun permits have been public now for 32 years,” said Mahoney. “I look back at the entire 32-year history of this law and ask whether there is a compelling need to change this law. When [concealed-handgun permittees] voluntarily submitted their applications to the state, they did so knowing that information was public. This is not a situation where the state is trying to change the rules in the middle of the game.”
Shenna Bellows, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and board member for the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, also spoke against the bill, although with qualifications.
“On the one hand, the public’s right to know what the government is doing is fundamental to our representative democracy. The achievement of government of and by the people requires that the people know what the government is doing,” said Bellows, whose written testimony was delivered by ACLU of Maine staff member Jill Barkley. “On the other hand, the government has significant powers to collect personal information about the citizenry and should take great care in dissemination, as well as collection, of that data. … Our position in opposition to LD 345 was developed with these constitutional precepts in mind.”
Bellows argued that keeping the records open allows the public the chance to ensure the system isn’t corrupt and cited ACLU cases in South Dakota and Kentucky that found that no immigrants were receiving permits, which was a violation of equal protection language in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“This bill is not a gun control bill,” she said. “It is a government secrecy bill.”
Suzanne Goucher of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition agreed.
“Who will police the police?” she asked. “Every step our government takes toward confidentiality is a step away from freedom.”
Capt. Christopher Wainwright of the Oxford County Sheriff’s Department spoke neither for nor against the bill, but said there is another side to the question.
“What you’re going to do also by publishing a list is to notify the public of people who don’t have a [concealed-handgun permit],” said Wainwright.
But the bill’s supporters far outnumbered opponents. Michael Cianchette, chief counsel for Gov. Paul LePage, spoke in favor of the bill on behalf of the administration.
“It is not my right to know whether my neighbor is taking certain medication any more than it is my right to know that he or she possesses firearms,” said Cianchette.
David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, has been at the tip of the sword against releasing concealed-handgun permit data.
“No reporter or political entity ever has the right to play games with personal information,” said Trahan. “Every American is the government and the information in question is ours individually and only collected by the government.”
A work session on Wilson’s bill is scheduled for March 21 with the Judiciary Committee.