AUGUSTA – A controversial bill that would allow Maine residents to carry concealed guns without permits remains stalled in a legislative committee, whose members are grappling with an issue that has divided Maine police and polarized many lawmakers’ constituents.

After several hours of discussion Friday, Democrats on the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee outvoted Republicans, 7-6, to table L.D. 652 for the second week in a row. The delay comes as a national gun control group conducts a television, radio and digital ad campaign against the bill. The committee will likely take up the bill again.

Maine law now allows any legal gun owner to carry a firearm openly. The bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Eric Brakey of Auburn would make Maine one of seven states that allow individuals to carry concealed handguns without permits.

The bill would not eliminate the current permitting system, managed by local, county or state police, but it would effectively make a permit optional.

Supporters claim the permitting system is ineffective and creates a barrier for law-abiding citizens to exercise their constitutional right to own and carry a firearm. Critics counter that the bill would eliminate the background checks – including checks for felony convictions or a history of domestic violence – and screenings for “good moral character” that have helped ensure some people cannot carry a hidden gun.

The Maine State Police testified that the agency has denied 251 applications and issued 36,078 permits during the past four years.

Democrats on the committee pressed Brakey and a key supporter of the bill, David Trahan, a former legislator who is now executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, on the fact that the bill would allow people who have been denied permits by police to carry concealed handguns.

The issue has divided Maine’s law enforcement community. Although state police have concerns about some aspects of the bill, the agency supports the concept and is working with Brakey on the issue. The Maine Chiefs of Police Association opposes the measure and spoke against it at a press conference in Portland that preceded a public hearing on the bill two weeks ago.

“The permitting system is not the best one … but we think it’s of value,” said York Chief of Police Douglas Bracy, president of the chiefs association. “If we protect even one life, then we feel it is worth it.”

Lawmakers said they are being bombarded with calls and emails on both sides of the issue. Also, the national group Everytown for Gun Safety and the Maine chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America launched an ad campaign in hopes of turning votes against the bill, which has more than 90 bipartisan co-sponsors.

“It’s very frustrating that the Democrats on the committee are still opposed to having an up-or-down vote on this issue,” Brakey said. “That is all people want.”