Politics

February 18, 2013

Legislators face fallout following gun-permit flap

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
State House Bureau

The Legislature on Tuesday is likely to begin dealing with the blowback from a Bangor newspaper's decision last week to request personal identifying information of concealed-weapons permit holders.

Can state lawmakers effectively, thoughtfully handle the pressure?

After enduring about 24 hours of fierce and relentless opposition, the Bangor Daily News on Friday withdrew its Freedom of Access Act request for the records and vowed to destroy any information already received. The paper says it never intended to publish the information, but that didn't matter, so swift and effective was the mobilization by gun rights activists.

That would seem to end the controversy, but it didn't. On Friday a new, curiously timed and motivated anonymous FOAA request surfaced, providing justification for two pro-gun Democratic leaders, Sen. Troy Jackson and Rep. Jeff McCabe, and Gov. Paul LePage to submit an emergency bill that would suspend inspection and dissemination of concealed-weapons permit data.

The bill, L.D. 576, could pass Tuesday without a public hearing. It would put a moratorium on public information for about four months, or until the passage of Rep. Corey Wilson's bill, which makes the data private permanently.

The emotional energy and urgency assigned to the issue by gun rights advocates has some worried that lawmakers will be pressured to ram through the two proposals without adequate consideration of the ramifications on public safety and the state's right-to-know law.

Additionally, there's some concern that the outcry has conflated two issues: Privacy and the constitutional right to own guns.

Public inspection of concealed-weapons permits appears to have been around since 1985. A section of the law was amended in 2011, when Gov. Paul LePage signed a bill that included a slight wording change affecting public inspection of permits, while affirming that the issuing authority "must" keep them in the public record.

Here's how the law was amended:

"The issuing authority shall make a permanent record of each permit to carry concealed handguns [originally: firearms] in a suitable book or file kept for that purpose. The record must [originally: shall] include the information contained in the permit itself and shall must be available for public inspection."

Mal Leary, president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition (MFOIC), told the Portland Press Herald on Friday that public access to information on permit holders acts as a check to ensure that officials who award the permits have been diligent in screening applicants. In some cases, he said, town governing boards are reviewing applications and granting permits, not law enforcement.

As it stands, Leary said, Wilson's bill is so broad that it would shield not just personal information but also general statistics on permit holders. Even a narrowly-tailored bill, Leary said, begs consideration of a simple question: Do gun owners deserve confidentiality protections not afforded to other law-abiding citizens?

Last week, Judy Meyer, vice president of MFIOC, asked that same question. In an editorial for the Sun Journal in Lewiston that some legislators blasted while fanning the controversy, Meyer noted that Wilson's justification for the bill is that concealed-weapons permit holders have to undergo background checks, therefore their information shouldn't be subject to public inspection.

If that's the case, Meyer asked, should teachers, contractors working in sensitive industries, police and other permit holders who undergo background checks also be shielded?

It's a question that now confronts lawmakers, who will undoubtedly be lobbied as vigorously as the Bangor Daily News was before it yanked its public records request.

Will they take the time to answer it?

GOOD FOR THE GOOSE

Here's an interesting footnote to the gun dust-up.

Wilson's bill was submitted at the request of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, the nonprofit group that promotes conservation and gun rights.

In 2010, SAM filed an FOAA request seeking over 100,000 email addresses of those who had bought hunting and fishing licenses through the state's online purchasing service. The data is public information and SAM wanted it to solicit new members.

Presumably, some of those hunting-license holders own guns.

WHAT'S FAIR?

Democratic leaders have been talking a lot about "tax fairness" the past two weeks. Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, first mentioned a fair tax structure last week during Democratic leaders' weekly media availability.

So what exactly will tax fairness legislation look like?

A bill by Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, may hold the answer. Berry, the House majority leader, has a bill titled "An Act To Provide Tax Fairness for Maine's Middle Class and Working Families."

Berry said Wednesday that his bill is still being developed. However, he indicated that it may propose raising taxes on the wealthy while lowering taxes for middle-income earners.

Democrats have also indicated there could be changes to the state's tax code. They're offering few details beyond that, but it's a safe bet such proposals will become some of the most vigorously debated this session.

NOT HAPPY

The budget deal struck by the Legislature's budget-writing committee made sure that charter schools were exempted from the governor's education cuts.

The issue was a sticking point during negotiations, as Democrats had originally proposed including the $5,000 charter subsidy in the reductions. Republicans essentially said they wouldn't vote for the spending plan if charters were included.

Democrats eventually conceded. The Maine Education Association, the state's teachers union, wasn't thrilled with the outcome. Here's what Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the MEA, said:

"This move is extremely upsetting. If cuts are going to be made, charter schools should have to face the same consequences as our public schools since they are also funded by taxpayer dollars. ...

"Unfortunately this supplemental budget is just the beginning of the problem for our public schools, if the governor has his way. His budget calls for these cuts to continue over the next two years. Our schools and communities can't take any more cuts because the truth is ... some cuts never heal."

Kilby-Chesley didn't chastise Democrats in her statement even though they ultimately agreed to exempt charter schools in exchange for spending items in the budget.

State House Bureau Chief Steve Mistler can be reached at 620-7016 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

On Twitter: @stevemistler

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