AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to support a bill that makes confidential the personally identifying information on concealed handgun permits in Maine.

On a 8-3 vote, the committee adopted an amendment to a bill, LD 345, offered by Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, that seals the data.

The amendment offered by Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, allows statistical data on gun permits in Maine to be released, including how many permits are issued and denied each year and where those permits are issued.

Valentino’s amendment also directs the Chief of the State Police to prepare a plan and to report to the Legislature information about the permitting process so lawmakers can make adjustments to the state’s concealed handgun permitting laws as needed.

“This is a reasonable compromise,” Wilson said after the committee vote. “In some ways, even though it protects law-abiding citizens, it still allows for some data to be disseminated. And in some ways makes it less restrictive than even current law allows.”

Wilson said the compromise balances the concerns of those worried the permit law is being administered fairly while alleviating concerns of permit holders that release of their data could be used to thwart their Second Amendment rights.

Wilson’s bill was prompted, in part, after the Bangor Daily News requested access to the gun permit data statewide under the state’s open records law.

That request came on the heels of a controversial decision by a New York newspaper, which published an online map of concealed handgun permit holders’ homes in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting incident.

While the BDN stated several times it did not intend to publish “wholesale” data on concealed handgun permit holders in Maine, the request created a firestorm of conservative outrage.

Prior to adopting Valentino’s amendment, the committee discussed and voted down, 8-3, another option by Rep. Charles Priest, D-Brunswick, which would have kept the handgun permit data public with exceptions for several categories of individuals.

Those whose permit information would be sealed under Priest’s amendment include law enforcement, former law enforcement, judges, prosecutors, witnesses in criminal trials, jury members or former jury members.

Priest’s amendment also would allow permit holders to file affidavits requesting their information be sealed from the public record if they are victims of domestic violence or are afraid that release of the information could jeopardize their lives or safety.

Priest’s amendment also limited the number of requests for concealed weapons data any individual could make to one per day on one individual. The amendment also required that request be made in person and be satisfied in hard copy in an attempt to ease concerns that permit data could be disseminated widely.

Priest also argued passionately that there was good reason to keep handgun permit data public and disputed the notion that permit holders have a constitutional right to carry a hidden firearm.

“This is the ability to carry around a deadly force, under your coat and to have it there at all times,” Priest said. “That is a matter the state has a legitimate concern with, and they have had a legitimate concern with in this state since 1917.”

He also pointed to several federal court decisions that support states’ rights to regulate firearms and to permit concealed handguns or to deny those permits.

Maine law has always kept private the permit application data, he said. But once a permit is issued, the permit details always have been and should be public, he said.

“This has been a public record since 1985, and there has been no actual statement of harm that has been caused by having it a public record,” Priest said.

But other lawmakers said there was no need for the public to have access to handgun permit data that identified individuals, and that it was a matter for law enforcement only.

Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, a retired Maine state trooper, said while there was much discussion about the need for public information, there was little discussion about the “real issue” Wilson’s bill was attempting to deal with.

“That’s the appropriate protection of privacy for each and every law-abiding citizen in this state who chooses for whatever their reason to take a course and obtain a concealed weapons permit,” Burns said. “That’s an extremely important thing for most of the citizens of this state.”

But those advocating for open records, including Shenna Bellows, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, pointed to a public opinion poll released Wednesday by PanAtlantic SMS Group.

That poll suggests Mainers are closely divided on the issue, but also suggests that Democrats, women and young people are more supportive of keeping handgun permit data public.

The polls shows 46.4 percent favor keeping records private and 48.6 percent favor keeping the records open.

“Mainers are relatively evenly split,” Bellows said. “Rather than making all of this information confidential, there is a reasonable compromise that would protect the safety of individuals who have reason to believe they would be harmed if the information were made public.”

Bellows said the debate would now move to the full Legislature, where her organization would support the Priest amendment.

“We agree with the majority of Mainers who believe these records should be public with some common sense exceptions to protect safety,” Bellows said. “We look forward to the debate before the full Legislature and will continue to advocate for increased transparency.”

Under a temporary law, which expires April 30, the information on concealed handgun permits in Maine is sealed from public inspection.

That measure, signed by Gov. Paul LePage, was meant as a “cooling off” period, but gun rights advocates seek to make the seal permanent.

The next vote on the issue will be in the Maine House of Representatives, but the bill has not yet been placed on the calendar.

If approved by the full Legislature and signed by LePage, Wilson’s bill would become law May 1.

Scott Thistle

Scott Thistle is the State Politics Editor for the Lewiston Sun Journal. He has covered federal, state and local politics in Maine for nearly two decades.