Editorial: A history of open access to concealed handgun permits

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In February, as debate swirled in the House regarding emergency legislation to temporarily conceal the personal identifying information printed on concealed handgun permits, there were a lot of questions about why the 112th Legislature defined these permits as public records way back when.

A lot of questions, but no answers.

So, in our effort to support an informed debate on LD 345, a bill that would permanently shield concealed permits, we took a look at the legislative history of what had been known as LD 519, An Act to Establish Guidelines for the Issuance of Concealed Weapons Permits, passed as PL 119 in 1981.

That bill, to permit confidentiality of concealed permit applications and proceedings but require permits to be maintained as public records, was supported by none other than the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, “whose representative was present at all of the working sessions” of the Committee on Legal Affairs, according to the legislative history.

The bill was also fully supported by the Police Chiefs Association, the Maine Municipal Association and the National Riflemen’s Association, which is now known as the NRA.

And, it was passed by a Legislature that included, among its membership, Speaker of the House John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, Senate President Charlie Pray, D-Millinocket, Sen. Paul Gauvreau, D-Lewiston, Sen. John Baldacci, D-Bangor, Sen. Richard Trafton, D-Auburn, Rep. Charlie Webster, R-Farmington, Rep. Darryl Brown, R-Livermore Falls, Rep. Roy Nickerson, R-Turner, Rep. Albert Stevens, R-Sabattus, and other well-known lawmakers.

More interesting than the fact that SAM and the NRA supported this legislation to define a concealed permit application process is the fact that neither spoke against the public record requirement of concealed permits.

The original bill, sponsored by Rep. Merle Nelson, D-Portland, called for “all applications and supporting documentation” connected to a concealed handgun permit be confidential and not available for public inspection or copying.

In working the bill, the Committee on Legal Affairs recommended splitting off the confidentiality protection for the application documents from the permit itself, upholding the shield on the application but making the permit a public record.

That amendment protected personal information contained in the application, but not personal identifying information printed on the permit. That’s an important distinction, and one lawmakers made with considerable thought.

In fact, when it came to disagreement on this bill, the only real debate of any merit was conducted in the House over a contentious amendment to exempt hunters from the concealed handgun permit requirement while hunting, something Rep. Paul Jacques, D-Waterville, argued against, saying “what you are saying is that anybody that has a hunting license will have the right to have a firearm under their jacket or in their pocket,” without undergoing a rigorous permitting process. “How,” he asked, “do you expect your law enforcement people to do the job?” if anyone able to buy a $5 hunting license would then be permitted to conceal carry.

Jacques pushed for passage of the original language in LD 519, without the hunter-carry exemption, because “It is fair, it treats everybody equally.”

His argument prevailed and, in the end, that amendment was soundly defeated and the bill was passed into law – including the public record requirement.

The law was amended once again in 1999 to delete one word, and recodified in 2006 as PL 1985, which left the public record language intact, according to the legislative record.

The only real change since the bill was passed in 1981 was in 2011 when, at the request of Gov. Paul LePage, language that issuing authority for concealed permits “shall” make all permits available for public inspection, was strengthened to “must” make permits available for public inspection.

This is the history of Title 25, Chapter 252, a history of full support from SAM and the NRA, and a history that includes a recent strengthening of the public record requirement.

SAM, borrowing a page from the NRA, is now using fear of privacy infringement as a call to action (and donation) in what it calls a “crisis” of public record requests that threatens law-abiding gun owners.

The legislative record is clear that, since 1981, SAM supported the requirement that these permits remain in the public domain, much like it supports the public record status of hunting, fishing and trapping licenses which contain all of the same information.

LD 345 has been assigned to the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over public access-related legislation, but has not yet been scheduled for public hearing.

When it is, we ask again that tempers remain steady and that history be our guide.