AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage on Friday submitted an emergency bill that would immediately block the release of personal information included on Maine concealed-weapon permits.
The bill is in response to the uproar over a Bangor newspaper’s public records request for information on permit holders throughout the state. The Bangor Daily News withdrew its Freedom of Access Act request Friday, but the LePage administration says other groups have submitted requests for the permit information. At least one was submitted anonymously.
The angry reaction from gun-rights activists to the Bangor paper’s Freedom of Access Act request could have repercussions for the Legislature in two key policy areas: Gun safety and the right-to-know law.
The blowback against the Daily News eased somewhat Friday when the paper rescinded its request for the names, addresses and dates of birth of permit holders — which is public information under Maine law. But gun-control advocates are still concerned that the incident could erode support for several gun-control measures, including bills that would mandate criminal and mental health background checks on private gun sales and set limits on the size of ammunition clips. In all, 29 bills related to gun control and gun-owner rights have been introduced this session.
“We’ve been watching this from afar,” said Bill Harwood, founder of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence of the Bangor Daily News controversy, “but our concern has been that this could be an unfortunate distraction from a meaningful debate about legislation we believe will save lives. We’re concerned it could take the oxygen out of the room.”
The Bangor newspaper said it never intended to publish the permit information but wanted to analyze it for a project it started some time ago on domestic violence and drug abuse, according to Anthony Ronzio, the paper’s director of news and new media, in a statement released Thursday. He said the newspaper fast-tracked its request for the gun data after Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, introduced emergency legislation that would prevent information on concealed-weapon permit holders from being released to the public.
Wilson’s bill had been headed for a hearing before the Criminal Justice Committee, but the Senate pulled it back after the controversy over the newspaper’s request erupted Thursday.
Legislative leaders want to consider whether it’s more appropriate to have the bill heard by the Judiciary Committee, which handles matters related to the state’s open records laws.
Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, co-chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, said Friday that Wilson’s bill should be heard by the Judiciary Committee.
“I’ve made my case, now I’m waiting to hear what (leadership wants),” Dion said. “In my mind (Wilson’s bill) is a right-to-know issue.”
Harwood said his organization doesn’t plan to take a position on Wilson’s bill.
But the measure has raised concerns among public-access advocates. Mal Leary, president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, said the bill is so broad that it would shield not just personal information but also general statistics on permit holders.
David Trahan, director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, the organization that drafted Wilson’s bill, has said he is open to making sure statistical data remains public.
Nonetheless, Leary said, a hearty debate awaits even a narrowly-tailored bill.
Leary said protecting public access to information on permit holders acts as a check to ensure that officials who award the permits have been diligent in screening applicants. In some cases, he said, town governing boards are reviewing applications and granting permits, not law enforcement.
The bill submitted by LePage on Friday would immediately halt the release of information on individual permit holders, according to his spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett. The bill is designed to be a temporary measure, she said.
The bill is co-sponsored by Aroostook County Sen. Troy Jackson, the assistant Senate majority leader, and Skowhegan Democratic Rep. Jeff McCabe, the assistant House leader.
Bennett said the governor hopes the bill will be enacted as early as Tuesday. Details have not yet been released.
The administration said the bill would “provide immediate protection for law-abiding concealed-weapon permit holders” while lawmakers consider Wilson’s bill, also an emergency measure.
One of the new requests for information on concealed-weapon permit holders was submitted from a gmail account, “CelebrationConnect@gmail.com.” The request, sent to the Maine State Police, has no other identifying information other than an email address. Emails sent to the gmail account Friday were bounced back as undeliverable.
Dan Heskett, a native Mainer who moved to Celebration, Fla., in 2012, said he registered the domain name celebrationconnect.com at the time of his move, but said he didn’t submit the FOAA request.
Steve McCausland, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, said State Police will “review” the request and probably won’t make a determination whether to provide the information before next week.
State House Bureau Writer Steve Mistler can be reached at 620-7016 or at:
On Twitter: @stevemistler