February 15, 2013

Bangor newspaper's request for gun data causes uproar

The newspaper requests personal information on concealed-weapon permit holders, which causes a backlash that stretches from Facebook to the State House.

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

A Bangor newspaper came under withering attack from gun rights advocates, state politicians and hundreds of online readers Thursday after requesting personal information on concealed weapon permit holders from all Maine police departments.

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Gov. Paul LePage displays his concealed-carry permit in a photo posted to his Twitter account Thursday afternoon. "If newspapers would like to know who has concealed weapons permits, then they should know the governor has his," LePage tweeted.

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The Bangor Daily News said it was gathering the information as part of a reporting project on domestic violence and drug abuse.

"The BDN has no intention to release this information publicly," said Anthony Ronzio, the newspaper's director of news and new media, in a prepared statement.

But the newspaper's request, filed under Maine's Freedom of Access Act, was widely attacked as an invasion of privacy and act of provocation linked to the Legislature's pending consideration of a bill that would prevent personal information on permit holders from being made public.

Within hours, critics had established Facebook pages featuring images of handguns and calls for advertiser boycotts and subscription cancellations to the Bangor Daily News.

The dispute echoes a controversy in New York in December, when the Journal News newspaper published a list and interactive online map of all handgun permit holders in two counties. That action triggered condemnation from police and criticism by other media outlets.

Thursday's critics included Republican Gov. Paul LePage, whose office posted on Twitter a photo of LePage displaying his own concealed weapon permit.

"If newspapers would like to know who has concealed weapons permits, then they should know the Governor has his," LePage said in a statement. "I have serious concerns that (the) BDN's request will incite fear among gun owners and non-gun owners alike regarding their safety. There is no reason why these records should be public and I encourage the Legislature to act quickly to make this personal information confidential."

Top Republicans in the Legislature called a news conference at the State House, where House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, said the newspaper was "politicizing" the gun issue.

Senate Minority Leader Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said whether or not to make personal information on gun-permit holders public is a privacy issue.

"I think most people in the state of Maine don't really like organizations out there collecting lists with their names on it," he said. "We have a heated debate (about gun control) going on in this nation and it's going to be a robust debate.

"But for a major daily newspaper -- one with the reputation of the Bangor Daily News -- to engage in something like this, it's just shocking to me."

Shortly after the news conference, Maine Republican Party Chairman Richard Cebra used the dispute as a fundraising pitch in an email blast to supporters.

"This is a reckless overreach by a zealous press that could result in innocent, law-abiding gun owners, and all Mainers being put in danger," Cebra's email read. "We can't stand idly by as the press, liberal politicians and anti-gun special interest groups control the debate and control the message in the media. Help us fight back."

Twenty-nine bills that mention the words "firearm," "gun" or "handgun" in their titles have been submitted this legislative session.

Among the measures is a bill sponsored by Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, that would designate personal information on concealed weapon permits as confidential and make it illegal to release such information to the public.

Assistant House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said he supports Wilson's bill. He said he's "very uncomfortable" with information on permit-holders being available to the public. Some permit holders are women who got them because of domestic-violence threats, he said.

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