By Judith Meyer
On April 3, Maine’s Judiciary Committee voted 10-3 to create a new public access exception to shield personal identifying information of state-issued concealed carry permits, yielding to the overwhelming testimony of the gun lobby and gun owners to protect their privacy.
This, after the full legislature passed an “emergency” 60-day shield in February to allow time for tempers to cool before debating a permanent measure.
Tempers never did cool. In fact, the proposed exception to the state’s Freedom of Access Act only became more politicized.
As the committee worked the bill, in a concession to public access, members added a requirement that the state police develop and maintain a database of all active permits and to make some aggregate information in that database public, like how many permits there are in each town.
At the time, there was no discussion about what that requirement might cost. That oversight galled one retired police officer into action.
In Maine, a majority of concealed carry permits are issued by the state police, but many others are issued by boards of selectmen who keep their own records, so there is no central clearinghouse of permit data.
Wondering what it might take for the state police to produce aggregate information in his own town, East Boothbay, a coastal community of some 2,000 year-round residents, retired officer Ron Riml asked for the number of permit holders in that town. That number is not available.
Never mind that State Police have never compiled records of all permits, the computer system the agency uses to record the permits it does issue isn’t capable of searching or sorting aggregate data.
Riml said he found that “very incredulous,” and contacted his representative and friend, Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay. According to Riml, MacDonald met with Commissioner of Public Safety John Morris and was told the same story: “The computer is old, program is old. We shovel stuff in, and can’t get anything out.”
In order to comply with the recommended requirement to make aggregate data available, State Police will have to purchase a new computer system and import information from an estimated 30,000 active permits.
That won’t be free.
Recognizing that, the Judiciary Committee, in an unusual move, brought the bill back for a surprise work session to tie a fiscal note around it and tag it as a government “mandate.” As a mandate, the bill will require a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate, rather than a simple majority, to pass into law.
This bill, which was originally fast-tracked to committee and seemed headed for a quick floor debate, has suddenly slowed. Spending money, it seems, matters.
There was general consensus among Republicans in the early going to get this public access exception pushed through as a “win” to bolster the profile of gun rights before a number of gun-related bills came before the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.
That may very well have happened, had it not been for Riml.
While public access advocates debated the concept of transparency and the potential cost in principle to lose that accountability, we missed the very real consideration of actual cost — in dollars — of balancing transparency against private interests.
It took a retired police officer who supports public access in concept and pinching pennies in practice to point that out.
During the week that he did so, lawmakers debated more than 20 gun bills, including banning mentally ill people from owning guns, giving the sole authority to issue concealed carry permits to State Police, allowing retired police officers to conceal handguns without a permit and raising the training requirements for concealed carry permit holders.
As of this writing, none of the related proposals has been passed. The one that garnered the most debate? Ending the requirement to seek a permit to carry a concealed weapon altogether, in the public interest of “enhanced safety.”
A number of the people who offered testimony asked lawmakers to follow the lead of Vermont, where constitutional carry is the law, which means permits are not required to conceal carry.
Judith Meyer is a managing editor at the Sun Journal in Lewiston, Maine. She’s a member of the Right to Know Advisory Committee and vice president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition.