AUGUSTA, Maine — Questions about the limits of Second Amendment rights and the proper role of government dominated the conversation on Wednesday in Augusta as a bill to ease Maine’s concealed firearm law sparked ardent response from supporters and opponents.

Mainers lined up at the State House by the dozens to speak when the Legislature’s Public Safety Committee opened a hearing on LD 652, which would allow any Mainer legally authorized to own a handgun to conceal that weapon on their person or in their vehicle without a permit.

Earlier in the day, police chiefs from several of Maine’s largest communities joined activists in Portland to denounce the plan, saying Maine’s porous system of background checks for gun purchases would be made even thinner by weakening the concealed carry permitting law.

Just five states, including Vermont, have a universal right to concealed carry. Maine’s permitting law has been around for about 100 years. In its current form, it requires applicants to fill out a form, pay a fee, take a handgun safety course and pass a background check for “good moral character,” which includes a review of police and other public records drawn from the past five years.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, and co-sponsored by more than half the Legislature — including leaders from both parties — would establish an automatic right to what proponents call “constitutional carry.”

Maine’s Constitution states that the right to bear arms “shall never be questioned.” Brakey skewered the requirement of a permit on those grounds.

“This sure seems like questioning a right that shall never be questioned,” he said.

Brakey took the fiercest questions from Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, a longtime member of the committee who described himself as a gun owner and fan of the Second Amendment.

He questioned the refrain from Brakey and his supporters that all the bill would do is allow legal firearm owners to “wear a jacket” while carrying their handgun.

“The Constitution says you can use a gun, you can own a gun, you can carry a gun. It doesn’t say you can hide a gun,” Gerzofsky said. “It has nothing to do with a jacket. It has to do with hiding a gun. You’re proposing that everyone should be able to, on their whim, hide a gun and go anyplace with it.”

In response, Brakey told the panel that “if we’re concerned about people hiding a gun for nefarious purposes, why should we have any reason to think that person would submit themselves to a permitting process to begin with?”

That argument holds little water for Wayne Richardson, a 60-year-old concealed carry permit holder from South Portland who said he opposes Brakey’s bill. Just because people may break a law doesn’t mean the law should be struck down, he said.

“It’s like the speeding law. You can’t go faster than the speeding law says, but people do,” Richardson said in an interview. “Yes, you’ll have lawbreakers, but right now, we can go after them and arrest them.”

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck made a similar argument during a news conference Wednesday morning in Portland, where he was joined by law enforcement officers from South Portland, Scarborough, Westbrook, Windham, Gorham and Yarmouth, as well as the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office — all of whom oppose Brakey’s bill.

The state only requires criminal and mental health background checks for those who purchase guns from licensed firearms dealers. If one buys a gun in a private sale, nobody is required to verify that the buyer is legally permitted to own the gun. Estimates indicate that about 40 percent of gun purchases are made without any background check.

Sauschuck and other police officers stressed that because of Maine’s lax position on background checks, the concealed carry permitting process is often the only opportunity police have to keep bad actors from walking around with loaded weapons.

“Because it’s so easy to own a gun, that’s why it’s so important to have this permitting process to conceal the gun,” said South Portland Police Chief Ed Googins during the public hearing.

Sauschuck said that in 2013, his city issued 159 concealed carry permits but denied 23 others. Those that were denied because of the applicant’s history of domestic violence, drug abuse or mental health problems, he said.

“Not only should they be denied a concealed carry permit, but they shouldn’t have a firearm at all,” Sauschuck said at the Portland event. “Without this process, we wouldn’t be aware of the situation. … If this bill passed, you could buy that weapon without a background check and immediately tuck it into your shirt and walk down the street.”

“We don’t want to make our communities a more marketable location to drug dealers or anyone else that’s here to do a criminal act,” he said.

But not every member of law enforcement opposes the bill. The Maine State Police, which issues more concealed carry permits than any other agency, testified Wednesday in support of Brakey’s bill, drawing raucous applause from supporters listening to the proceedings in an overflow room.

Maine State Police Maj. Chris Grotton said the current system has so many flaws that it’s ineffective.

He said most of the criteria for the concealed carry permit are the same that must be met to legally own a gun. He also said that the fact permits are valid for four years but not regularly reviewed during that time means the “good moral character” verification is meaningless.

“If you get a permit today, and six months from now you’re convicted of a felony, there’s no automated process where any department is notified,” he said in an interview. “Maine needs to either fix the system, which is not inexpensive, or to rethink the policy. This bill takes that second tact.”

The constitutional and public safety concerns were myriad, but for many of the more than 60 people who testified, the issue at hand was simple. Jeff Allen, a former Maine Guide who divides his time between Maine and Alaska, put it this way:

“This is about our freedom,” he said.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and,...