Reposting this story with some of the context that was cut in order to fit the story in the newspaper. Click here for for the abbreviated version. – S.M.

A last-minute amendment backed by the National Rifle Association threatens to derail a bipartisan bill to overhaul the state’s concealed-weapon permit law, in a move criticized as election-year sabotage.

The bill would create a central, confidential permitting system and allow Maine State Police to conduct criminal and mental health background checks. It was drafted during more than a year of meetings by interested groups, including law enforcement, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and the NRA.

On Thursday, the bill received early approval in the House, with an 82-54 vote that fell mostly along party lines. A majority of Republicans voted against the bill and instead backed a late amendment, supported by the NRA, that would defeat the purpose of the bill by allowing gun owners to carry a concealed weapon without a permit, a practice gun rights advocates refer to as “constitutional carry.”

Democrats, who control the Legislature, objected to the late introduction of the amendment, which was at odds with the purpose of the bill and was not part of the lengthy negotiations in committee. A few Republicans who supported the bill in committee voted against it on the floor.

The erosion of Republican support makes it less likely that lawmakers could override a veto by Gov. Paul LePage, who has not taken a position on the bill.

Some lawmakers and other observers believed the amendment was introduced so votes against constitutional carry could be used by political groups such as the NRA in the upcoming legislative election to portray rural Democrats as opposing gun rights.

“It was a surprise tactic and it feels like a tactic,” said Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, co-chairman of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

Rep. Ricky Long, R-Sherman, who offered the amendment while the bill was in committee, acknowledged the politics of the amendment after Thursday’s floor vote.

Asked why he thought the constitutional-carry amendment was rejected Thursday, Long said Democrats didn’t want Republicans to score a victory during an election year. When he was told that some Democratic lawmakers have previously supported constitutional carry, but could suffer electoral consequences for not backing it on Thursday, Long said, “I believe the NRA is working on that right now.”

Long’s reference was to the national group’s long history of running highly organized political campaigns against lawmakers it deems as opposing the Second Amendment, the constitutional right to bear arms.

John Hohenwarter, a lobbyist for the organization, did not immediately return a call seeking comment. However, the NRA’s legislative action arm had identified the bill, L.D. 222, as a priority, urging members to call Maine lawmakers to support the amendment. Dion said some of the NRA messages he received referred to him and other committee members as “gun grabbers.”

Long, a member of the committee, was the lone opponent in the panel’s 12-1 vote to approve the bill. Long offered another amendment that would have stripped several provisions from the bill, including one that prohibits towns without full-time police forces from issuing concealed-weapon permits. Currently, towns without a full-time police force allow select boards to issue such permits.

Long said the amendment was designed to preserve local control, a point repeated during the floor debate Thursday. 

However, the constitutional-carry provision reshaped the debate into one over gun rights.

The constitutional carry addition mirrors a proposal that nearly passed the House last year. Sixteen Democrats — most in rural districts — supported it, one Republican, Rep. Amy Volk, of Scarborough, opposed it. Rep. Aaron Libby, R-Waterboro, a passionate supporter of constitutional carry, sponsored last year’s proposal. Libby introduced the amendment that was defeated on the House floor on Thursday.

The floor fight and ensuing roll call votes could play into elections as Republicans attempt to regain control of the House and Senate after losing seats in 2012.

Dion said he suspected that was the intention of the late amendment.

“I felt like it was sabotage to advance an entirely different policy question, which had already been decided (last year),” he said.

Lawmakers in both political parties engage in gamesmanship during an election year, sometimes derailing compromise legislation to mobilize base supporters during an election year. The issue of gun rights is particularly acute in Maine, a state with a high rate of gun ownership, a low crime rate and a long history of resisting gun control legislation.

Last year, The Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence, the national leader in gun control advocacy, gave Maine an “F” for moving gun control legislation. The state has averaged a “C” grade in recent years.

The bill now moves to the Senate, where the constitutional-carry amendment could surface again.