By Steve Mistler
State House Bureau
AUGUSTA — The identity of Mainers who have permits to carry concealed guns will be shielded from the state's right-to-know law for the first time since at least 1985, following action Tuesday by the Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage.
The emergency action was a response to a Bangor newspaper's now-aborted public records request for information on concealed-weapons permit holders, and a second request for information from a little-known Florida man.
The requests followed a New York state newspaper's controversial decision to publish the names of concealed-weapons permit holders in its area in December. The Bangor Daily News request ignited rage from gun rights activists who pressured Maine lawmakers to shield the information.
The new law, sponsored by two Democratic lawmakers and requested by the Republican governor, will make the identifying information of concealed-weapons permit holders private until at least April 30.
There are at least 30,000 concealed-weapons permit holders in Maine, officials estimate. The exact number is unknown because many permits are granted by individual cities and towns and there is no statewide list.
The bill passed unanimously in the Senate on Tuesday. In the House, several Democrats objected but were vastly outnumbered, and the measure passed 129-11. LePage signed the bill into law Tuesday afternoon.
Lawmakers championed the initiative as a bipartisan move to protect the privacy of individuals who have permission to carry a weapon. Most dismissed concerns that the temporary concealing of public information in response to a perceived threat of publication could mean that the data will become private permanently.
Sen. Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said the fast-tracked vote was the right decision, saying the measure was a common-sense proposal that needed to be enacted immediately "to protect gun owners and non-owners, alike."
Supporters of the change have argued that the information could be used by criminals to determine which homes are defenseless, as well as which homes have guns inside. Several lawmakers Tuesday cited public safety issues, even though the information has been open to public inspection, copying and dissemination for at least 28 years.
Until last week, there had been no bills proposed to make the concealed-weapons permit data private since at least 2003, according to a search conducted by the Maine State Law and Legislative Reference Library.
The move by lawmakers came as advocates for the state's sunshine law warned that the information should remain public to ensure that officials who award the permits have been diligent in screening applicants. In some cases, town governing boards and not law enforcement agencies are reviewing applications and granting permits to residents.
"It's like you being able to check if a doctor has a license or not, or a lawyer is admitted to the bar or not, or your electrician is actually licensed by the state," said Mal Leary, a journalist who serves as president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition. "If you don't have access to that public record, how do you know that?"
There is also growing sentiment that the dust-up has been inflamed by some lawmakers and the Maine Republican Party for political gain and to conflate a privacy debate with the sensitive topic of gun ownership. The belief was reinforced among some when the Maine Republican Party used the newspaper flap to appeal for donations.
The Democratic co-sponsors of Tuesday's emergency bill, Sen. Troy Jackson of Allagash and Rep. Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan, said the moratorium was necessary so that lawmakers could thoroughly consider a separate bill by Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, which would make the shield permanent.
There are some concerns among members of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition that Tuesday's vote, and the inflamed controversy that preceded it, have made passage of Wilson's bill inevitable.
Lawmakers have been vigorously lobbied by the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine -- the hunting and conservation group that drafted Wilson's bill. The National Rifle Association has sent action alerts urging members to contact lawmakers to pass Wilson's bill since the records request by the Bangor Daily News ignited the firestorm.
Maine's Legislature has been historically resistant to opposing the gun lobby in a state where gun ownership and hunting are ingrained in culture and history.
Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, the Senate majority leader, said that the emergency moratorium was necessary to dial back the rancor from last week.
Goodall was asked Tuesday if making the concealed-weapons data temporarily private would essentially guarantee passage of Wilson's bill because it would be difficult for lawmakers to later argue that the information should be public.
"They're two separate issues," said Goodall. "I think it provides time for the Legislature and the Judiciary Committee to hear the bill. We feel that this will help remove politics, to the greatest extent possible, and some of the emotions surrounding the issue."
Not all Democrats agreed that the moratorium was necessary. After breaking from an extended caucus, some Democrats expressed frustration with the emergency move.
Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston, told a reporter before the vote that the emergency bill was a "hijacking."
Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, co-chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, left the Democratic caucus early after learning that Wilson's bill was being moved to Judiciary. Last week the House had referenced the bill to Gerzofsky's committee, but Democratic leaders changed their mind after the issue blew up.
Any change to the state's FOAA law is subject to review by Judiciary regardless of which committee hears the entire bill. Gerzofsky said Wilson's bill was about concealed weapons and that historically was handled by Criminal Justice.
"It's all bull (expletive)," Gerzofsky said. "Bull (expletive) and politics. I'll vote for it but I don't like it."
Rep. Brian Jones, D-Freedom, one of 11 who voted against the bill, said the urgency attached to the emergency bill was manufactured for political gain.
"We're using this as a political football," he said. " ... This is not an emergency, this is a political emergency.
The Sportsman's Alliance of Maine argues that making the information secret is necessary in the wake of a New York newspaper's publication of the names and addresses of concealed weapons permit holders.
On the other hand, the hunting and conservation group has frequently used the state's FOAA law to obtain contact information from hunting and fishing license holders -- also public information. Hunting license holders are not necessarily concealed-weapons permit holders.
David Trahan, executive director of SAM, said that the FOAA request predated his tenure at the organization and that the alliance no longer planned to use the state's license database. Trahan added that the previous requests were never meant to publish the names and addresses of license holders.
The Bangor Daily News rescinded its request for the information last week and said that it never had plans for a context-free publication of permit holders' names and addresses, but had intended to use the data for ongoing projects on domestic violence. The explanation didn't wash with gun rights activists, who started a boycott of the newspaper and urged advertisers to quit doing business with the paper.
The second request for information on concealed-weapon remains somewhat mysterious.
It was submitted from a gmail account, "CelebrationConnect @gmail.com." Dan Heskett, a native Mainer who moved to Celebration, Fla., in 2012, said he registered the domain name celebrationconnect.com at the time of his move, but said he did not submit the FOAA request.
-- State House Writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: