AUGUSTA – Gun rights activists showed up in force Thursday at the State House to support a bill that would overturn a 96-year-old Maine requirement for people to obtain a permit if they want to carry a concealed weapon.
Citing the “knee-jerk reaction” to tighten gun restrictions in the wake of the December shootings of 20 children and six educators in Newtown, Conn., gun rights advocates said it’s time to stand up for their constitutional rights.
“We need to push back,” said Rep. Jethro Pease, R-Morrill, a member of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, which held a public hearing Thursday on the bill, L.D. 660.
More than 40 people testified in favor of the bill. Nobody spoke against the measure, which would eliminate a legal requirement first passed by lawmakers in 1917.
Despite Thursday’s lopsided turnout, the Democrat-controlled Legislature is unlikely to pass the measure. A similar bill failed to win approval two years ago when Republicans were in the majority.
The only criticism voiced Thursday came from a committee member, Rep. Timothy Marks, D-Pittston, who retired from the Maine State Police in 2011 after 25 years.
Marks said allowing concealed weapons without a permitting system would make the work of police officers more dangerous, especially during traffic stops. He said a motorist with a concealed weapon could easily ambush an officer.
“It’s the split-second jump that can put you in danger,” he said.
Bill Harwood, founder of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence, said his group will submit written testimony opposing the legislation.
“This is not a time to weaken gun laws,” he said in an interview, noting that the public is clamoring for tighter gun controls. “Anything we have in place that makes it harder for bad guys to get a gun is something we should hold onto.”
Maine law currently allows people to carry a gun without a permit as long as the gun remains visible. To carry a weapon hidden from view, however, they need to pay $35 and apply for a concealed-weapon permit from local or state authorities.
Applicants must show they have “good moral character” and answer more than 30 questions, most of which relate to their adult and juvenile criminal history and whether they have a mental disorder or a drug habit.
Supporters of L.D. 660 say it’s “logically inconsistent” that people in Maine may wear a gun openly, such as in a holster on their hip, but must obtain a permit to carry the weapon on the inside of a jacket.
“We are not talking about handing these guns to criminals. This is about how the guns are carried,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Aaron Libby, R-Waterboro.
Since 2003, four states — Alaska, Arizona, Wyoming and Vermont — have passed similar measures, known as “constitutional carry.”
George Smith, the former longtime director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, told the committee that repealing the law requiring a permit would “build a lot of goodwill” with gun owners and could generate enough support among lawmakers to pass a separate gun control bill.
The gesture, Smith said, would allow gun owners to support background checks for private gun sales, with the exception of sales between family members. He also said gun owners probably would support a measure that allows police to remove guns from owners who have been admitted to a psychiatric hospital on an emergency basis, as long as there’s a process for getting their guns back.
“We can get this job done if we respect each other and put aside the rhetoric to focus on the important things,” he told the committee. “We must respect those who demand more gun restrictions, and they must respect us.”
Smith said the compromise could win passage if packaged in a single bill.
Gun control advocates and law enforcement officials have long argued that Maine and other states with unregulated private gun sales are an easy source of weapons for criminals or mentally unstable people who couldn’t get a gun from a licensed dealer.
Sen. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, the ranking Republican on the committee, said it’s too early to talk about any deal. When asked about Smith’s proposal, however, Plummer replied, “I think it has potential for working.”
But advocates on both sides downplayed the suggestion.
Overturning the concealed-weapons permit law is too much of a price to pay for modest gun control legislation, said Harwood, of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence.
“Why do we have to make a gesture to the gun lobby just to get good common-sense legislation passed?” he asked.
David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine since he took over from Smith in 2011, said Smith has never spoken to him or the group’s executive board about his proposal.
“George Smith is not the executive director of SAM,” Trahan said. “I hope people don’t get confused. He is not speaking for us.”
Thursday’s hearing also featured some heated comments.
James Robert Lynch II, 24, of Lewiston, who said he carries his 9 mm pistol openly in public, told lawmakers that the issue is about protecting fundamental rights.
“Anyone on this committee who doesn’t support L.D. 660 is a traitor to his or her country who should be thrown in prison for treason or receive the death penalty for this crime,” he said.
Guns are not allowed in the State House, and the Legislature had additional security staff monitoring the hearing Thursday.
The committee will discuss the bill again at a workshop on May 1.
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: