AUGUSTA, Maine — An at-times-tense legislative work session broke up abruptly Thursday after lawmakers seemed to disagree on a bill that would allow employers to prohibit guns in employee vehicles on company grounds.

The proposal before the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee would repeal a law passed two years ago that prohibits employers from forbidding employees to keep guns in their cars when parked on company property.

Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, was attempting to question Peter Gore, vice president for advocacy and government relations at the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

Gore had been invited to answer questions from the business community’s perspective on the issue.

He said the chamber’s policy committee was in favor of repealing the bill.

“This is a big issue for the business community,” Gore said. “It really comes down to a choice issue. They argued the rights of the employee to bring a handgun onto the employer’s property outweighed the rights of the employer to have their public property, their business managed in a way that best suited them.”

Gore said he understood the debate about the Second Amendment but the chamber did not see it as a gun issue.

“We see it as a workplace management issue and we always have,” Gore said.

Wilson asked if there had been any issues since the law changed.

“No, but businesses don’t want to wait for an issue,” Gore said.

Wilson asked how employers would know if someone had a handgun in her car.

“Whether it’s legal or illegal, essentially, there’s no way because its an individual’s private property, their automobile is. You have no right to search it,” Wilson said. “I guess I just don’t see the point in it being illegal if you have no enforcement mechanism whatsoever in any shape or form. I just have a hard time with it.”

After Wilson had asked two questions, the committee’s co-chairman, Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, told Wilson his time was up, based on a plastic hourglass timer the committee had been using to limit testimony.

Wilson pointed out that the committee was in a work session and he would likely have other questions.

“Not in this work session,” Gerzofsky told Wilson bluntly.

Wilson later challenged Gerzofsky, asking, “What’s going on here?”

Wilson said committee members are usually allowed to ask questions during a work session, and to make statements, as lawmakers work to decide how they will vote on a bill. He said he was hoping to be able to make an informed vote.

Other committee members were allowed to question Gore, and other committee members questioned Gerzofsky about his decision to limit questions.

After the work session ended, several committee members, Democrats and Republicans, left shaking their heads.

“This committee is dysfunctional,” Rep. Tim Marks, D-Pittston, said to Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Morris as he left the room.

Because he was presenting a bill in another committee, House Co-chairman Mark Dion, D-Portland, was not in the room during the dust-up between Wilson and Gerzofsky.

Dion said later he heard things went awry after he left, but he declined further comment.

Wilson said later it wasn’t the first time he had been silenced by Gerzofsky and that his treatment was causing “a serious division” on the committee.

“At the end of the day, when we do things together, we end up with a better piece of a legislation,” Wilson said.

Gerzofsky said during the work session he was only trying to keep the committee on schedule.

But Sen. David Dutremble, D-Biddeford, said if the committee wasn’t allowed to ask questions he would make a motion that they recess for the day.

The committee tabled five gun-related bills, but lawmakers said the intent was to continue working on those measures later this week and into Monday.

The committee has as many as 20 bills it is hoping to combine into a package of one or two committee bills, said Rep. Michel Lajoie, D-Lewiston.

After the session, Lajoie said gun bills are difficult for lawmakers on either side of the issue.

“There’s a lot of emotion behind these gun bills,” he said.

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.