AUGUSTA – While the Legislature acted Tuesday to shield concealed-weapons permit information from the public, Maine’s law enforcement community said better access to the information could help police get guns out of the hands of criminals.
Law enforcement agencies now have no reliable, real-time way to check whether someone they come in contact with has a valid concealed-weapons permit, though lawmakers are due to consider a proposal to create a central database of permit-holders for internal use.
Police say it’s needed.
“There’s always room for improvement in the system, and there’s room for improvement here,” said Lt. Scott Ireland, head of the Maine State Police’s licensing division, which monitors about 25,000 active permits given to people in more than 300 rural communities as well as out-of-state residents.
Permit-holders must answer questions about their criminal history and undergo background and mental-health checks to obtain or renew permits, which are good for four years.
Permits can be revoked early by the issuing authority for reasons ranging from a criminal charge or conviction to a violation of state law’s “good moral character” clause, which could include a history of abuse or “reckless or negligent conduct.”
Without a central database, however, police may not discover whether a person accused of a crime has a concealed-weapons permit that should be revoked.
Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, has said there might be as many as 45,000 active permits in Maine. Ireland puts the number at approximately 33,000.
They don’t know the exact number because Ireland’s office keeps one tally of state-issued permits and larger municipalities keep track separately of the permits they issue.
Vern Malloch, Portland’s assistant police chief, said rural departments that keep permit records often don’t have 24-hour staffing, so if his officers run into someone in Portland who has a concealed weapon or commits a crime, they may not be able to reach the issuing town or city to check on a permit.
L.D. 189, sponsored by Rep. Timothy Marks, D-Pittston, would establish a statewide database of permit-holders so law enforcement, courts and correctional officers could track permits. Ireland, Schwartz and Malloch all endorsed the idea.
“I think the process could be improved,” said William Harwood, a Portland attorney who founded Mainers Against Handgun Violence. “There should be a process by which law enforcement routinely checks the criminal background database against the concealed-weapons database to see if there’s a permit that needs to be revoked.”
Ireland has said his office is dealing with more than a three-month backlog on permits because increased demand for new permits is overwhelming his staff of four. The office is technically in violation of state law, which says permits for most Mainers should be issued within 30 days.
Along with the lack of a database, officials indicate, there is inconsistent questioning among police departments.
For example, if police allege that a crime is committed with a handgun, Schwartz said he would expect officers to ask whether or not the accused has a permit. Ireland, on the other hand, said that would not be part of a normal line of questioning.
Malloch said if his department comes across someone concealing a weapon, officers ask whether they have a permit to do so. If an offense doesn’t involve a gun, however, they may not ask about a permit and may never find out.
“If they’re concealing a weapon, we’re always going to ask if they have a permit,” Malloch said. “In a lot of instances, we’d leave it up to them to tell us if they have a permit.”
Gov. LePage said during his State of the State speech he wants to prioritize getting guns away from domestic abusers.
The federal government and many states, including Maine, prohibit gun possession by those who are convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence or are subject to a restraining order sought by an intimate partner. Maine has such a law, but “enforcement of these laws appears to be spotty,” according to a 2012 white paper issued by Johns Hopkins University.
Ireland has said the percentage of permit applicants who are denied or revoked each year is small: in the single digits. Malloch said Portland revoked one permit in 2012, after the department opened a criminal investigation against the man who held it.
David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, which has lobbied against public disclosure of permit data in recent days, said he’d support the concept of a central database, as long as it doesn’t burden state police.
In a statement, House Republican spokesman David Sorensen said his caucus believes the information “should remain accessible to law enforcement and the courts.”
Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 370-7652 or at: