Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing: That's what the Legislature should do when L.D. 345 comes up for a vote. The bill would take what is now public information -- the identity of concealed firearms permit holders -- and put it completely under control of government agencies and officials, including the state police, municipal police chiefs and boards of selectmen. No concerned citizen could take a look at the list and evaluate the process. No one could see if the issuing agency was fair, or if it overlooked something that would make the permit holder ineligible.
The bill is an emergency measure, so it will need at least two-thirds support in the House and Senate. That status alone should give lawmakers pause.
What is the emergency? These records have been public for more than 30 years. The system hasn't been abused. There is no evidence that keeping these records public has put anyone at risk from people who want to harm them or target homes for burglars looking for guns. There is no evidence that hiding these records won't make people less safe than they are now.
The "emergency" had little to do with Maine at all. Following the horror of the Newtown, Conn., school massacre, a nearby newspaper in White Plains, N.Y., published a map online showing where concealed weapon permit holders lived. This was a project of little journalistic value, but it fueled concerns that gun owners would be targeted.
When the Bangor Daily News made an information request for Maine's permit data (which it quickly withdrew), a bill that would not likely have drawn much attention at a normal time became in many eyes an emergency. But it's not. Concealed carry permit holders have not been exposed to undue scrutiny in Maine and there is no reason to think that they will.
A bipartisan majority of the Judiciary Committee reached what they call a compromise, shielding the names but permitting the release of aggregate data, such as the number of permits issued. But that data would have little value to someone who wanted to see if the process was fair. A better alternative is the committee's minority report, which would keep the records open but let individuals petition to keep their identity secret if revealing it would put them in danger. That might be a good way to move forward, but it doesn't have to be rushed through.
There is a delicate balance between keeping government transparent and protecting individual privacy. There are a lot of stray facts in the public record that a lot of people wish were private, from their political registration to how much they paid for their homes. That balance shouldn't be readjusted in a hurry -- especially when there's no emergency.