February 28, 2013

Business safety concerns vs. gun permit holders

A 1996 shooting on one Maine company's property remains vivid in the mind of a former executive who tried to find which employees had weapons.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA – John Peters wanted to know which of his employees might bring a gun to work. So did other employees at Downeast Energy, some of whom remembered the fatal shooting of a co-worker, 38-year-old Cynthia Nelson, outside the company's Gorham office in 1996.

John Peters, former president of Down East Energy

In July 2011, Peters, then president of Brunswick-based Downeast Energy, asked the company's safety coordinator to file a public records request with the Maine State Police for the names of concealed-weapons permit holders.

The company's Freedom of Access Act request for concealed-weapons data is among 10 that have been submitted to state police by several organizations since 2005, according to records obtained by the Portland Press Herald. And it adds a new perspective to the debate over whether the data should be made confidential after 32 years in the public domain.

For Peters, the records request was about workplace safety and peace of mind.

"I wasn't the only one who wanted to know who was bringing a gun to work," he said Thursday. "A lot of the people who work here wanted to know, too."

Gun-rights activists say concerns about gun owners' safety and privacy are reason enough to make the data in concealed-weapons permits private. So far, they're winning the argument with state lawmakers.

Last week, the Legislature invoked a constitutional emergency to temporarily shield such data. Another debate looms on a proposal to make it private permanently.

The controversial measure was a response to a quickly aborted request for concealed-weapons data by a Bangor newspaper and another by an unidentified party. The request by the Bangor Daily News outraged gun-rights activists, who worried that the paper would publish the information.

Peters had other concerns when he told Downeast Energy's safety coordinator, Mark Anderson, to request concealed-weapons data from the state police in 2011.

The company's request came 21 days after Gov. Paul LePage signed into law a bill allowing permit holders to leave their handguns in their vehicles during work hours, even if private employers had policies prohibiting employees from bringing weapons onto company property.

The Maine State Chamber of Commerce opposed the bill.

Downeast Energy banned weapons from company property after Nelson, an office worker, died from shotgun wounds inflicted by her former boyfriend, 31-year-old Scott Bunting.

According to news accounts, Nelson died while being taken to Maine Medical Center in Portland. Bunting, who was not a Downeast employee, died outside the office after shooting himself in the throat.

Peters arrived at his Gorham office shortly after the shooting. Bunting's body was still in the parking lot.

"It was one of the worst days of my life," Peters said Thursday.

He told that story to the Legislature's Criminal Justice Committee in 2012, in testimony against a proposal that expanded the gun law to cover public workplaces, such as prisons, state offices and state parks.

Peters and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce hoped to persuade lawmakers to repeal the 2011 bill. They weren't successful.

The 2011 bill rendered moot Downeast Energy's policy banning deadly weapons on company grounds.

Peters said that if the company couldn't keep concealed-weapons permit holders from bringing their guns to work, it should at least know which employees might do so.

"As the legislation moved through, I decided, 'Well, if we're going to lose this battle, at the very least I'd like to know who amongst our employees has a concealed-weapons permit," Peters said.

Peters is now vice president with Osterman Propane LLC, a subsidiary of NGL Energy Partners LP, the Oklahoma-based company that bought Downeast Energy in April. He said Thursday that he will soon leave the company after more than 30 years.

(Continued on page 2)

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