AUGUSTA, Maine — Sen. Eric Brakey, an Auburn Republican serving his first term in the Legislature, is bullish about rolling back restrictions on carrying concealed handguns in Maine, despite several similar efforts that failed in recent years.
His bill, LD 652, would make Maine the fifth state to establish “constitutional carry” — a universal right of all legal firearm owners to carry concealed handguns on their person or in their vehicles. The bill has a whopping 96 co-sponsors, more than half the state Legislature, including leaders from both parties.
“We have a lot of support,” Brakey, the bill’s sponsor, said Friday. “A majority in the House has signed on as co-sponsors and a near-majority in the Senate. We have a very strong coalition.”
Maine law allows legal gun owners to apply to their local police chief or to the state for a permit to carry a concealed weapon. The process involves a fee, a mandatory gun safety course and a finding that the applicant is of “good moral character,” which mostly means being free of serious criminal charges or convictions.
But Brakey and others say the law is unnecessary. Maine already allows for the open carrying of handguns without any rules other than that the person displaying the weapon is legally entitled to own it. They ask: Why should such a citizen be deemed a criminal simply for putting on a coat?
“The current system is not a system that makes you jump through hoops to carry a handgun,” Brakey said. “It’s a system that makes you jump through legal hoops to wear a jacket.”
But not everyone agrees with that assessment.
Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, is a former Cumberland County sheriff and Portland police officer. He said Friday that open carry and concealed carry are fundamentally different acts.
Obviously, carrying a firearm in the open alerts the public — and law enforcement — of the gun’s presence. But if someone is going to be allowed to carry a deadly weapon in secret, Dion said, that person should have to demonstrate he or she is responsible and knows how to use a gun safely.
“If you open carry down Congress Street into Monument Square [in Portland], it’s going to cause some alarm with some individuals. But at the very least, you’re announcing the fact and there’s an opportunity for the police or others to react accordingly if you do anything that should cause concern,” he said. “I think it’s a bit flip to say, ‘This is just about throwing a coat on.’”
On Wednesday, the Legislature’s public safety committee will hold a public hearing on the bill, and lengthy testimony is likely.
Everytown for Gun Safety, a national lobbying group connected to former New York mayor and staunch gun control advocate Michael Bloomberg, is lining up activists to speak against the bill. The group says lawmakers’ broad support for the bill is not mirrored by Mainers outside the State House.
The group recently commissioned a poll of 802 likely Maine voters. Eighty-four percent of respondents said they opposed “allowing citizens to carry concealed handguns in public places if they don’t have a permit.”
That broad opposition could be because of the fact that permitless concealed carry is illegal, but another poll result was even more telling. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said that if their lawmaker voted to overturn Maine’s concealed permitting law in favor of constitutional carry, they’d be more inclined to oppose that person’s re-election.
“I understand and appreciate the importance of responsible gun ownership. This polling clearly shows that my fellow Mainers do as well. Requiring those who carry hidden, loaded guns in public to have a permit and learn some basic training is just common sense,” Shawn Boutaugh, a registered Maine Guide and gun owner from Millinocket, wrote in a prepared statement.
Gun Owners of Maine, an organization with 5,000 members across the state, is urging its members to testify in favor of Brakey’s bill.
One of those members, Matthew Glatz, a concealed carry permit holder in Portland, said it’s unnecessary for the state to require Mainers to take gun safety courses because responsible gun ownership is ingrained in the state’s culture.
“I was taught basic handgun safety when I was about 7 or 8 years old, when I learned to shoot a .22 rifle by my father,” Glatz said Friday. “I think we live in a very gun-friendly state. Hunting is ingrained in Mainers. … If this bill is passed, I don’t think we’ll see a surge of people concealing weapons who aren’t trained and have firearms going off like the Wild West.”
Former Rep. Aaron Libby, R-Waterboro, unsuccessfully tried — twice — to pass a similar bill. The first effort, in 2013, fell just one vote short of passage. The next year, Libby tried to tack the proposal on to a bill to reform Maine’s concealed handgun permitting system but was rebuked by majority Democrats in the House.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.