AUGUSTA — Gun rights advocates and those who want stronger restrictions on firearms crowded a State House hearing room Friday as lawmakers listened to a full day’s worth of testimony on nine bills aimed at changing or refining laws governing the use and possession of firearms, mostly handguns.
The bills touch on everything from a prohibiting the creation of a gun owner registry to lowering the minimum age for a person to legally carry a hidden handgun in public.
A law passed in 2015 allows adults 21 and older to carry concealed handguns without permits, unless they are prohibited under state or federal law from owning firearms. The author of that law, Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, now wants to amend it to lower the age requirement to 18.
Brakey is also sponsoring legislation that would strip from the 2015 law a requirement that anyone carrying a concealed handgun must immediately disclose they have it on them whenever they encounter law enforcement.
Other bills before the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee include proposals to require proof of safety training before a firearms purchase and trigger locks for all gun sales, and a bill to allow cities and towns to ban firearms from public meetings and polling places.
The bills follow the defeat of a statewide ballot question in November that would have required federal criminal background checks for all private gun sales in Maine.
State law now requires all federally licensed firearms dealers to check buyers’ backgrounds through the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System. But guns sales between private parties in Maine require no similar background checks.
Guns and their regulation are a perennial issue in the Legislature, as most studies suggest that guns are in about 50 percent of all Maine households. Because of the unregulated private market, it’s nearly impossible to determine the precise number of guns Mainers own.
FBI data shows that Maine ranks in the middle – 26th among the 50 states – for the number of names run through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System in 2015, although those figures do not include private sales.
The 94,744 background checks processed by the FBI in 2015 equaled one check for every 14 residents, compared with one check for every 1.4 residents of Kentucky (the highest) and one for every 99.5 New Jersey residents.
Brakey told committee members Friday that Maine law already allows people 18 and older to openly carry handguns in public, so allowing them to carry concealed weapons wouldn’t be a big change. People 18 to 21 can obtain permits for concealed handguns if they take the required training and clear the background checks.
Maine residents 18 to 21 who serve on active duty in the U.S. military or who are honorably discharged veterans can also carry hidden handguns without permits under the 2015 law. Under federal law, only those 21 or older can legally buy firearms.
“The Maine Legislature determined this artificial distinction between concealed and open carry did not make sense for adults 21 and older, but why should it make sense for individuals at any age?” Brakey asked. “If you can already legally carry a handgun, why should the state require a permit to wear a jacket?”
Numerous opponents, including a spokesman for the Maine Association of Psychologists, said brain development until the age of 25 limits young adults’ ability to accurately judge risks and rewards and control impulsive behaviors. That’s why, they said, it makes sense to require training for younger adults to carry concealed handguns.
Nick Wilson, executive director of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, said the coalition also opposes the change.
“Compared to individuals in their mid-20s, 18-year-olds are more impulsive, thrill seeking and vulnerable to negative influence such as peer pressure,” Wilson said. “During these pivotal years, adolescents also typically begin experimenting with alcohol and drugs – both important risk factors for gun violence.”
Paula Reed of North Yarmouth, a nurse, mother, and volunteer with the Maine chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said she has studied much of the information that’s provided online by advocates for concealed handguns. Reed said her father, a Rockland-based attorney, was paralyzed when he was shot in his law office when she was teenager and died a decade later as a result of his wounds. His death was ruled a homicide, Reed said.
“People say there isn’t gun violence here in Maine, but I remind them that there is,” Reed said, “And though I have this history, I don’t consider myself anti-gun. I do think, overall in Maine, we have a strong history of responsible gun ownership.”
Reed said almost all of the advocates for concealed carry, including former military members and National Rifle Association instructors, recommend high levels of training for those who want to carry guns for personal protection.
Gun experts also go to great lengths to discuss developing the right mindset for carrying a loaded handgun in public, she said. “The concealed carry mindset, is what they call it,” she said.
Quoting from one pistol instructor, Reed said, “He should not have a macho, emotional, impulsive or revenge-kill instinctive reaction, but rather avoid trouble, use non-emotional and rational judgment.”
She said that lowering the age requirement is simply irresponsible. “I don’t think it’s safe to assume that every 18- or 19-year-old can maintain a proper concealed-carry mindset, especially in situations where they might be drinking or using drugs or where peer pressure is present. I find it hard to believe a teenager is going to be able to remain non-emotional and de-escalate a dangerous situation.”
Brakey said his bill that would roll back the disclosure provision for those carrying concealed handguns is meant to protect citizens from having to incriminate themselves. He said that portion of the state’s permitless carry law seems to be in conflict with the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“We all have a constitutionally protected right to remain silent,” Brakey said. “But this law compels you, under penalty of law, to speak, and to potentially incriminate yourself.”
But lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, who supported the 2015 change advanced by Brakey said the law gained many of the votes it needed to pass largely because of provisions meant to protect public safety and law enforcement officers. Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Benton, a former Kennebec County deputy and the current Drug Alcohol Resistance Education training coordinator for the state, said Brakey is now trying to change parts of the law that were critical to its passage. Cyrway said the disclosure requirement is meant to protect police, plain and simple.
York County Sheriff William King told the committee the disclosure law is needed and important to law enforcement.
“When a police officer approaches a vehicle, they have no idea who they may encounter,” King said. “It may be a 16-year-old girl who is upset because she’s in trouble with her parents, or it may be a gang-related drug dealer from New York City ready for a delivery. Every stop has the potential of being dangerous.”
King said that removing the duty-to-inform requirement would only make traffic stops and other encounters with law enforcement more dangerous and complicated.
Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said attempts to loosen the law, less than two years after it was enacted, “seemed to be getting way out of hand.”
He asked King if law enforcement hopes to keep the current law. King said, “absolutely.”
In the days ahead, the committee will work on amendments to the bills while taking votes on its recommendation to the full Legislature.
Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at: