AUGUSTA — Mainers are one step closer to being able to carry a concealed handgun without a permit after a decisive vote Thursday in the state Senate.
By 21-14, the Senate approved the heavily lobbied measure that pits gun rights activists against groups that want regulation and oversight of people who carry firearms.
Three Democrats joined the Republican majority to support the bill. Two Republicans voted against it.
The decisive vote led advocates to predict passage in the House of Representatives, which could take up the proposal in the coming days. And it prompted a leading opposition group to urge members to call their state representatives and persuade them to vote “No.”
“I was under the impression it was going to be a lot closer than that,” said South Portland Police Chief Edward Googins, an opponent of the measure.
The bill, L.D. 652, could make Maine one of only seven states that allow individuals to carry a concealed handgun without a permit. It has 96 co-sponsors, more than half the members of the Legislature, and the blessing of some members of the Republican and Democratic leadership.
The proposal has divided Maine’s law enforcement community. The Maine Chiefs of Police argued that removing the permitting requirement to carry hidden guns would strip away background checks for felons, but the Maine State Police supported the bill during an April 8 public hearing.
State police Maj. Christopher Grotton testified in support, arguing that Maine’s permit system is antiquated and that permitting is inconsistent across the state’s more than 400 municipalities. The permit system does not prevent a dangerous person from owning or carrying a gun, whether hidden or in the open, Grotton said.
The police chiefs in Portland and South Portland, meanwhile, were disappointed in the vote.
“Even though the concealed weapons permit process is not perfect, it does offer a reasonable check without which anyone can carry concealed,” said Googins, the South Portland chief. His department has turned applicants down because of past offenses such as domestic assault, violating a protection from abuse order, possession of drugs, drunken driving and criminal threatening.
“It’s a vote that ultimately hurts the safety of our communities,” said Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck.
Sauschuck, who is currently acting city manager, said the concealed weapons permitting process, which includes training and background checks for criminal history and mental health problems, is a common-sense approach to carrying a firearm.
“If our bar is ‘criminals aren’t following the rules anyway,’ well, then we wouldn’t have any rules,” he said.
ARGUING SAFETY, RIGHTS, BILL’S IMPACT
Dennis Crowell, a concealed weapon permit holder from West Gardiner, was pleased with the Senate vote and hopeful about the bill’s chances in the House.
Crowell regularly carries a concealed handgun for self-defense and is a member of the Capitol Rifle & Pistol Club in Augusta. He knows gun owners who refuse to get the permit because they believe it violates their constitutional rights.
“The opponents have argued forcefully that police will not know who is carrying a firearm. In reality, they don’t know now. There is no centralized database,” Crowell said. “When you really cut to the chase, criminals are criminals because they don’t obey the law. The only people who are going to be influenced by that law are honest citizens.”
Currently, Maine law allows gun owners to openly carry a handgun without a permit. However, concealing a handgun requires a permit from state police or local law enforcement, which includes a “good moral character” requirement and a background check to determine if the applicant is a convicted felon or has been involved in domestic violence disputes.
The bill doesn’t eliminate the permitting system, but it would make the permit optional.
Bill supporters argue that the mandatory permitting system creates barriers for law-abiding citizens to exercise their constitutional right to carry a gun. Opponents have countered that the Second Amendment allows U.S. citizens to bear arms, but it doesn’t protect the right to “hide a gun.”
Critics also have argued that the bill effectively eliminates the screening offered by background checks. That’s especially important, they say, in the case of someone who buys a gun in a private sale and therefore could carry a concealed weapon without a background check or waiting period.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, argued on the Senate floor Thursday that permits do not guarantee safety or ensure that gun carriers are trained.
Brakey said the proposal is a modest one that allows legal gun owners to carry a handgun while wearing a jacket. Current law, he said, makes legal gun owners “instant criminals” by simply putting on a jacket or hiding their weapon.
He rebutted arguments that the permit law increased firearm safety or protected the public from gun violence.
“A permit is not a guarantee of real training,” he said.
Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, said the proposal wasn’t about “guns and coats,” but about rolling back current protections in state law.
“We’re going to protect people who can’t pass a safety test or pass a background check and let them carry a gun anyway,” he said.
Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, a gun owner and concealed weapons permit holder, said the permit system included educational components that explained the implications of carrying and using a gun.
“This is not Hollywood. You don’t wound people in the knee and they fall down,” she said.
POLITICAL STAKES, PAID ADS, LOBBYING
The political stakes attached to the bill are considered high in a state that has a long tradition of spurning gun control bills in favor of looser restrictions. The pressure is also high on Democrats from rural districts and traditional swing districts.
The National Rifle Association has spent about $8,500 lobbying key lawmakers, including dinners entertaining Brakey, Republican leadership, and Democrats who have traditionally supported gun rights legislation and whose votes may be needed to pass the bill in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives.
The NRA also has engaged its highly active membership with legislative alerts urging them to call lawmakers and tell them to support the bill.
The Maine Chiefs of Police effort to convince lawmakers to reject the proposal has been backed by a volley of paid radio, TV and Web advertising from Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund and the Maine chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Everytown for Gun Safety is a political group formed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a well-known gun control advocate who has financed efforts to counter the NRA on a wide range of state and federal gun legislation.
How much Bloomberg’s group has spent attempting to influence the vote on L.D. 652 is unknown. The group is using indirect lobbying, trying to coax the public to convince state lawmakers to vote against a particular piece of legislation. State lobbying disclosure laws only require groups to report their advocacy efforts when lobbyists make direct contact with state lawmakers.
The Maine State Police say 36,000 concealed handgun permits, including 12,000 for non-residents, have been issued by the state. The total number of permits is likely much higher because they are also issued by local police and there is no centralized registry.
LEPAGE SEEMS TO FAVOR END OF PERMITTING
Gov. Paul LePage has not explicitly said that he’ll support L.D. 652. However, Grotton, head of the state police, appeared to represent the administration when he testified for the bill. And last year, LePage expressed support for eliminating the permit requirement in a veto message on a bill that would have strengthened the system.
“Eventually, I believe we will see legislation that will allow people to carry concealed weapons without going through the bureaucratic maze of applying for a permit,” LePage said at the time. “Studies are now confirming that where there are more concealed handguns, there is less violent crime. Therefore, I believe that in Maine, where we already have a culture of responsible gun ownership, we should not be making it more difficult for law-abiding citizens to carry concealed weapons.”
It’s not yet clear when the bill will be debated by the House of Representatives.
David Trahan, director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, a hunting and fishing group that supports the bill, said it probably will have enough votes to pass in the House.
A release from Everytown for Gun Safety urged supporters to contact House members and convince them to reject the bill.
Staff Writer David Hench contributed to this report.