A bill that would end Maine’s 96-year-old requirement that people obtain permits to carry concealed weapons was rejected Tuesday in the House by just one vote.
L.D. 660, which has been a priority of the National Rifle Association, lost 74-73 in an initial vote. The House will vote on the bill again after the Senate votes, likely on Wednesday.
Supporters of the bill said the permit requirement infringes on Second Amendment rights, and that removing it would have no effect on public safety.
Opponents said allowing people to carry concealed guns without passing background checks or getting gun safety training would create more fear in society and make it harder for police to do their jobs.
Losing by one vote is frustrating, but the close margin is encouraging because it shows that many lawmakers could support an idea that initially “sounds crazy” but makes sense once the facts are examined, said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Aaron Libby, R-Waterboro.
“It’s bittersweet,” he said, “but we are going in the right direction.”
After the vote, Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, who opposed the bill, glanced at the chamber on the other side of the Capitol. “It all depends on what happens there,” he said. “It’s up to the Senate now.”
The vote in the Senate will be close, perhaps a one-vote margin as well, said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, which supports the bill.
Since 2003, four states – Alas-ka, Arizona, Wyoming and Vermont – have passed similar measures, known as “constitutional carry.” A bill passed recently in Arkansas will become law in July.
Maine law now allows people to carry guns openly without permits. Anyone who wants to carry a weapon hidden from view must apply for a 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 adult and juvenile criminal history and whether the applicant has a mental disorder or a drug habit.
Supporters of L.D. 660 say it’s “logically inconsistent” that someone in Maine may wear a gun openly but must have a permit to carry the weapon on the inside of a jacket.
Rep. Allen Nadeau, R-Fort Kent, said he was riding his all-terrain vehicle on his farm and wanted to put his gun in his pocket to protect it from the rain. He said his wife told him not to do that because he would be breaking the law.
“It was my own farm and my own property,” he said, and the law makes him feel like a criminal. Rep. Timothy Marks, D-Pittston, who retired from the Maine State Police in 2011 after 25 years, was the only Democrat on the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee to support the bill.
He said the current system is broken; applicants must wait 150 days to 180 days for approval. And because more than 200 police and government agencies are authorized to approve permits, police can’t determine with any certainty whether any specific individual has a permit.
But Michael Tracy, the police chief in Oakland and president of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said in a letter to the Legislature that the bill would put Maine citizens at risk by eliminating “every trace of control” over who can carry a concealed handgun.
Rep. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth, said that allowing anyone to walk around with a gun in their pocket would create more anxiety. “I believe this would create a climate of fear much greater than we would want to live with,” she said.
Every Republican except Rep. Amy Volk of Scarborough supported the bill. Sixteen Democrats, most of them representing rural districts, voted for the bill.
Volk said many of her constituents in the Portland suburb told her they want tougher gun laws in Maine, not more lenient laws.
Although several states have passed stricter gun laws in response to December’s mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., the Maine Legislature has passed no gun control legislation in this session.
Dion, who co-chairs the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said the current system for issuing concealed-weapons permits is flawed, but it would be better to fix the system than get rid of it. Doing so would put citizens and police at risk, he said.
Tom Bell can be contacted at 274-0787 or at: [email protected]