Every document and every meeting at all levels of Maine government – state, county and municipal – are public unless there is a specific exception written in statute that shields the document or makes a meeting confidential.
If there’s no exception, the public has access.
So, what’s in a sampling of the millions of public records our governmental agencies maintain?
Reconciliation of bank balances with local government agency accounts.
Record of ownership of cemetery lots in municipally operated cemeteries.
Public employee calendars.
Inmate shave and shower logs.
Bomb threat reports when a perpetrator is identified (which fire departments must keep on file until the perpetrator reaches age 80).
Emergency dispatch records.
Final disciplinary actions taken against public employees.
Wood stove inspections conducted by fire departments at private residences.
Protection from abuse orders.
Permits to have a pinball machine operating on a commercial premise.
Visitor logs at jails and prisons.
Equipment maintenance logs.
Tax abatements on private and commercial properties.
Changes of name requested from probate courts.
Reports of all cutlery counted before and after each meal served in jail or prison.
Concealed handgun permits.
These permits are public records and have been for years, a fact that each permit holder was aware of when filling out his or her application, so the resistance we saw this week to the Bangor Daily News’ request for access to these permits is not really a moral stand against public records. It’s a political football in the contest of gun control.
If there is any hope of moving forward to balance personal safety with our very real and exceptionally valuable constitutional right to bear arms, while also preserving the essential accessibility of government records, we all – legislators, the public and Maine’s media – have an obligation to employ thought, not emotion, in supporting and crafting statute.
If we don’t, we’re not having a conversation.
We’re cementing an impasse.
And we’re creating myths, like the myth that crooks and thieves will seek access to a list of concealed permit holders so they can then identify homes that do not have guns.
First of all, crooks and thieves are generally not that organized or intelligent.
Secondly, just because a homeowner doesn’t have a concealed handgun permit does not mean (and by a very long stretch) that they don’t have a gun – or multiple guns – in the house.
So, no concealed handgun permit does not indicate no guns. Thousands of households in Maine exercise their justly protected Second Amendment right of gun ownership. No permit required.
Let’s pop another myth.
That concealed handgun permit holders are at a dangerously high risk of identity theft.
They are not.
The information contained on the face of a permit to conceal is similar to thousands of permits issued to Maine citizens every year, so there’s really nothing particularly revealing about the information printed there that doesn’t also appear on many, many, many more accessible records that thieves can obtain without filing a Freedom of Access Act request with a police department.
Or, a would-be thief might just go straight to Facebook, where people volunteer personal identifying information at an alarming rate.
Safety-conscious concealed handgun permit holders are smarter than to do that, which means they may actually be safer from identity theft than others.
As Maine’s Legislature moves forward on LD 345, the now uber-controversial bill to begin hiding the identities of concealed handgun permit holders, let’s put emotion aside and deal in facts, responsibility and accountability. Let’s do the same for the 80 other gun control bills that will be considered this session.
In the 48 hours after the public became aware of the BDN’s lawful request to see the concealed handgun permits, there was so much misinformation strewn that any hope of having a realistic conversation about what is best for Maine was lost. No, crushed.
The unofficial and supremely effective motto of the National Rifle Association and its associated gun lobby is that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”
The same could be said of information.
Information doesn’t kill people, people kill people.
Let’s remember that government establishes permitting processes for a whole host of activities to ensure permit holders are qualified for special permits and accountable to the public for their actions, and government also creates documents to record its business and track how that business is conducted and with whom.
And, since the government’s business is the public’s business, the public has a right to access those permits and those records.