AUGUSTA — Maine lawmakers developed significant changes to the state’s concealed-handgun permitting process on Wednesday after hearing that many cities and towns that issue the permits don’t do mental health checks on applicants.
A subcommittee that has been examining an overhaul of the permitting process made its initial recommendations for changes, including developing a uniform statewide permit, creating a database of all permit holders and allowing only state police and municipalities with full-time law enforcement agencies to issue permits.
Lawmakers will continue to work on the proposals when they return in January, and the measures will likely change before they’re put to a vote in the two chambers. But the proposals provide insight into how Maine is trying to tackle a system that officials say is fragmented and allows applicants to fall through the cracks when it comes to things such as mental health checks.
Currently, people can get concealed handgun permits through state police, through their local police or through selectmen and other municipal officials. But state police Lt. Scott Ireland told lawmakers that about 44 percent of the roughly 50 municipalities that were surveyed don’t conduct mental health checks of concealed handgun applicants — a fact that lawmakers called “sobering” and “disturbing.”
“I think that’s a significant issue … that we need to address,” said Democratic Rep. Mark Dion of Portland, co-chair of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee.
Under the recommendations drafted Wednesday, state police would manage all background and mental health checks, but local police chiefs still could conduct their own checks and ultimately issue permits.
The statewide database of permitting information is considered essential because police have found that applicants denied by one municipality can get a permit from another, Ireland said. The information collected would include a person’s criminal background, mental health committals as well as previous denials and revocations, lawmakers said.
“To have that information available 24/7 would aid both the permit holder and law enforcement,” Ireland said. “If a person forgets their permit and they’re carrying weapon, it would be easily verified that, yes, they do have one. Right now, that can’t be done statewide.”
But questions remain about how much it would cost to undergo such changes and how the state would pay for it. A bill introduced last session that would have made state police the sole issuing authority for permits had a $750,000 price tag, lawmakers said.