AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine House of Representatives on Monday voted 83-62 to approve a bill lifting the state’s permit requirement for carrying a concealed handgun.
The vote Monday is the culmination of a decades-long effort by gun-right advocates to remove restrictions on lawful gun owners and follows a 21-14 vote in the state Senate last week that also removed the permit requirement.
It is expected the bill, LD 652, sponsored by Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, will be signed into law by Gov. Paul LePage, making the state the sixth without any permit requirements for carrying a hidden firearm.
LePage has long said he supports the right of Maine citizens to possess firearms as the state’s Constitution, even more explicitly than the U.S. Constitution, protects gun ownership rights, stating, “Every citizen has a right to keep and bear arms and this right shall never be questioned.”
Supporters of the bill said the measure doesn’t change who can legally own and carry a weapon but simply legalizes carrying concealed weapons.
Current state law allows handguns to be carried openly, in a holster where they are visible, but not hidden beneath clothing or in a purse. There also are several areas — including the Legislature, public schools and courtrooms — where only law enforcement officers are allowed to legally carry firearms.
Those prohibited by state and federal law from possessing a firearm would still be prohibited under the change, supporters of the bill said.
“A currently prohibited person is still a prohibited person,” said Rep. Karen Gerrish, R-Lebanon, speaking in favor of the bill. “LD 652 does not change who may legally possess a firearm. Criminals will not be allowed to carry under this law; mentally ill individuals will not be allowed to carry under this law; none of the federally prohibited people, domestic violence and drug felons, will be able to carry under this law. This law only affects law-abiding citizens.”
Gerrish said those who would carry a gun illegally are not going to apply for a concealed weapons permit anyway.
“As we all know, criminals do not care about rules of law,” she said. “They are not going through any background checks, taking gun safety classes or going through any permitting process. Bad people will always do bad things. The permit system does not stop criminals from carrying guns.”
The bill’s opponents said they believed it would lead to a more dangerous and deadly Maine, one of the safest states in the country. Some who have been screened by state or local police and denied permits for a variety of reasons would now be able to pack heat, they said.
“I believe this bill will lead to the greater availability of concealed weapons in the hands of people who have no business owning guns at all,” said Rep. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth.
Cooper said hundreds of people who have been previously denied a concealed handgun permit would now be able to legally carry a hidden firearm.
The Maine State Police testified in support of the change, noting the state’s current permitting system was ineffective and that most of those who applied for the permits were granted them.
Maj. Christopher Grotton of the Maine State Police said that in the past four years, the agency has issued more than 36,000 concealed handgun permits and has denied only 251 applicants.
Lawmakers in the House did amend the bill, making it clear that individuals carrying a concealed handgun must be at least 21 years old and that those who carry must inform law enforcement they have a gun when stopped or questioned by police.
Those changes to the bill will be considered by the Senate in the days ahead.
The bill still allows a person to apply for a concealed weapons permit under state law, which in some cases allows an individual to also carry concealed weapons in states that have permitting laws and reciprocity with Maine on the topic.
Top Democrats expressed their disappointment after the vote.
“Maine’s existing gun laws work. Mainers have a long, rich tradition of responsible gun ownership while also having the lowest crime rate in the United States,” said House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick. “The repeal of these sensible laws is very troubling.”
Rep. Lori Fowle, D-Vassalboro, House chairwoman of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, opposed the bill.
“I’m deeply disappointed that we were not able to defeat this bill,” Fowle said. “I firmly believe that the permit process improves public safety in a reasonable manner. I am thankful that we passed the amendments that address the concerns law enforcement raised.”
The House vote Monday is a major victory for Brakey, a Libertarian-leaning Republican, who is serving his first term in the Senate.
He has long argued putting on a jacket that covers a handgun — that otherwise would be legal to have — shouldn’t be an act that makes a person a criminal.
“It’s great that we have finally gotten to a place where people understand the importance of this protection and are comfortable enough to let our Maine citizens exercise the same freedoms that the state of Vermont allows their citizens to exercise,” Brakey said after the House vote.