A proposal to allow Mainers to carry concealed handguns without permits faltered in a legislative committee Friday after weeks of discussion.

Members of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee voted 7-3 along party lines to recommend rejection of the bill, L.D. 652, that has divided Maine’s law enforcement community and been the focus of an intensive advertising campaign by state and national gun control groups. Democrats opposed the bill, while Republicans voted in favor of allowing gun owners to carry a concealed handgun without a permit.

DEBATE NOT OVER

The debate, however, is likely not over. The measure now goes to the full Legislature, where more than one-half of the 186 lawmakers originally signed on as co-sponsors.

“I was expecting a divided report out of committee today,” bill sponsor Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, said in a statement. “The fact of the matter is that we have 96 co-sponsors on this measure, from both sides of the aisle and in both chambers, as well as members of both Democratic and Republican leadership. I am confident that this bill will be strongly supported by the full Legislature.”

The proposal would make Maine the seventh state to allow individuals to carry concealed handguns without first receiving a permit from local law enforcement or state police. Maine law already allows anyone who owns a gun legally to carry a firearm openly. But to carry a concealed handgun, Mainers must undergo a background check – including for felony convictions or a history of domestic violence – and pass a “good moral character” screening assessed by police.

The committee has been grappling with the bill for several weeks since a public hearing that drew hundreds to the State House. Supporters claim the current permitting system is ineffective and creates a barrier for citizens who want to exercise their constitutional right to carry a firearm and defend themselves. Critics counter that the bill would eliminate the critical background checks needed to help keep the public safe and ensure some people cannot carry a hidden gun.

Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, said he has struggled with how to better preserve Mainers’ Second Amendment rights while protecting public safety.

“It needs more time and deliberation, but I am still committed to having that conversation,” Chenette said.

LAW ENFORCEMENT SPLIT

Sen. David Burns, a Whiting Republican who is retired from the Maine State Police, said the Legislature should spend time keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, rather than restricting the constitutional rights of law-abiding gun owners.

Maine’s law enforcement community split over the issue, with Maine State Police supporting an amended version of the bill and the Maine Chiefs of Police Association actively opposing the measure. Meanwhile, the national group Everytown for Gun Safety and the Maine chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America have blanketed several of the state’s major news publication websites – including the Portland Press Herald’s – with ads urging citizens to tell legislators to oppose the bill.

“The committee today stood up for public safety by definitively opposing this dangerous legislation that would eliminate the common-sense requirement that a person get a permit before carrying a concealed, loaded handgun in public,” Bob Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said in a statement released Friday by Everytown for Gun Safety. “Maine has a strong tradition of responsible gun ownership – but we know that our right to bear arms also means keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people.”

The full Legislature has no obligation to adopt the committee’s majority recommendation. And with 96 of the Legislature’s 186 members listed as co-sponsors of the bill, supporters could try to pass the bill in the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democratic-controlled House. But committee testimony or pressure from constituents could prompt lawmakers to change sides on the issue. For instance, Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, is listed among the co-sponsors, but voted against the bill in the Criminal Justice Committee.

‘ON THE RIGHT TRACK’

In recent years, Maine lawmakers have worked to streamline the permitting process and address a backlog of permit requests. The state also has enacted reciprocity agreements that allow permit holders in Maine to carry a concealed handgun in some other states. Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, a Brunswick Democrat who voted against Brakey’s bill, cited those steps as proof that he and others are working to improve and streamline the permitting system in response to complaints from gun owners.

“Are we done? Not even close,” Gerzofsky said. “But are we on the right track? I believe we are.”

The bill would not eliminate the current permitting system, but it would effectively make a permit optional. Vermont, Alaska, Utah, Arizona, Kansas and Arkansas either already allow gun owners to carry a concealed handgun without a permit or will switch to a permit-less system later this year.

The Maine State Police testified recently that the agency has denied 251 applications and issued 36,078 permits for concealed handguns during the last four years.