AUGUSTA — A bill that would permanently prohibit the public release of information about individual concealed-weapons permit holders in Maine was endorsed Wednesday by a legislative panel.
The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee voted 10-3 for an amended version of the measure, which would prohibit the release of names, addresses and dates of birth of permit holders. Five of eight Democrats sided with five Republicans to endorse L.D. 345, sponsored by Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta.
As amended by Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, the bill would permit the release of statistical information, such as the numbers of applications and permits issued, revoked or suspended. The gender, towns of residence and age ranges of permit-holders would also be public.
The bill directs Maine State Police to develop a plan for making the statistical information available and to present the plan to legislators by January 2014.
Wilson’s bill now goes to the House, where majority Democrats will likely divide their votes again.
“I think it’s a reasonable compromise,” Wilson said after the vote. “Even though it protects law-abiding citizens, it still allows for some data to be disseminated, which in some ways makes it less restrictive than current law allows.”
But public-access advocates said the vote was a mistake.
“Unfortunately, passion won out over principle,” said Shenna Bellows, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. “Today’s decision does not reflect what most Mainers believe.”
Concealed weapons permit information had been part of the public record for more than 30 years until lawmakers passed an emergency measure in February that prohibits public release of the data until April 30.
The temporary ban, imposed to give the Legislature time to take up Wilson’s bill, was prompted by Freedom of Access requests for permit information to Maine State Police from the Bangor Daily News and an unidentified party.
The requests triggered an uproar among gun rights advocates, mobilized largely by the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. In the ensuing days, Gov. Paul LePage endorsed removing the information from the public record, using a Twitter post with a photo in which he brandished his own concealed weapons permit for the camera.
About 40,000 permits are believed to be active in Maine. They are issued by state or local police and, in some cases, municipal officials.
Valentino said she initially didn’t think she could support the bill but was swayed by public testimony, which ran overwhelmingly in favor of the measure at a committee hearing last month.
“I listened,” she said.
Other Democrats who endorsed the bill Wednesday were Sen. John Tuttle of Sanford and Reps. Lisa Villa of Harrison, Stephen Moriarty of Cumberland and Jennifer DeChant of Bath.
The Democratic opponents were Reps. Matthew Moonen of Portland, Kimberly Monaghan-Derrig of Cape Elizabeth and Charles Priest of Brunswick.
The Bangor newspaper’s request for permit data echoed a December decision by The Journal News, a suburban New York City newspaper that published an interactive map of permit-holders in its area.
The map was published soon after the shootings that month at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that killed 26 students and educators.
Critics of permit information disclosure argued that publishing the information would make permit holders vulnerable to criminals intent on stealing guns or harming gun owners. But public-access advocates said there was little evidence suggesting that would occur, and that keeping names of permit-holders secret would make it harder to tell whether police or other public officials are screening permit applications effectively.
Opponents of blocking access to permit information included the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the Maine Press Association, a trade group that includes the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel.
A poll released Wednesday suggested the public is deeply divided on the issue.
Pan Atlantic SMS Group polled 403 Maine residents and found that nearly 49 percent supported keeping permit information public, while more than 47 percent were opposed. Nearly 5 percent were undecided.
The poll’s margin of error is nearly 5 percent.
Nearly 44 percent of those polled in Maine’s rural 2nd Congressional District supported keeping information public, compared with nearly 54 percent in the more urban 1st Congressional District.
“If you’re living in the city and the police are two minutes away, the concerns about safety are not as dramatic as the guy living in rural Maine who has to wait a half-hour,” said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.
If the bill is supported by two-thirds majorities in each house, it would take effect May 1. If supported by simple majorities, it would take effect 90 days after passage.
State House Bureau Writer Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:
On Twitter: @mikeshepherdme