AUGUSTA, Maine – On a 21-14 vote, a bill allowing gun owners to carry concealed weapons without a permit gained approval in the Maine Senate on Thursday.

The bill LD 652, sponsored by Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, would do away with Maine’s requirement that individuals wanting to carry a concealed weapon first obtain a permit from the state police or local officials. The permit requirement now in place requires a criminal background check, a mental health screening and evidence the individual has participated in a handgun training program.

Brakey’s legislation, known by gun rights advocates as “constitutional carry,” does not eliminate Maine’s current permit system but would allow citizens who are not otherwise prohibited from owning a firearm to carry their weapons concealed.

Maine law already permits individuals to carry a firearm openly in most public places where guns are not explicitly prohibited.

Lawmakers supporting the bill argued current law does little to prevent criminals from carrying concealed weapons and that law-abiding gun owners should not be criminalized for hiding a firearm.

“If someone plans to commit a crime with a firearm they have little incentive to seek a permit before committing their crime,” Brakey said.

Opponents said the measure would make Maine a more dangerous place by encouraging untrained people to tuck guns into their waistbands or under their coats.

Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, said she had participated in four different gun-training programs, including a concealed carry training program offered by the National Rifle Association. Haskell, who voted against the change, said required training programs gave assurance that safety standards were being followed by those with permits.

“I think if we go with a permit-less system we are going to lose a lot of the safety aspects of concealed carry,” Haskell said.

She also said the training courses made people seriously contemplate what it meant to be in a position to take another person’s life.

“This is not Hollywood, you don’t wound people in the knee and they fall down if you are in one of those difficult situations,” Haskell said. “That’s not what this is about.”

Maine’s policing community was split on the issue with the Maine State Police supporting the change and the Maine Chiefs of Police opposing the shift.

During testimony on the bill before the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee Maj. Christopher Grotton of the state police said in the last four years, the agency has issued more than 36,000 concealed handgun permits while denying only 251 requests for permits to carry a concealed handgun.

Supporters of Brakey’s bill said they had faith in what would largely be law-abiding citizens, who would likely seek even more training than is currently required under Maine law to carry concealed.

Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, a former state police trooper and detective, stood with the state police and other rank-and-file law officers from Maine who told him the proposal was a reasonable change to state law.

“I have great confidence in our citizens to properly and appropriately use those weapons,” Burns said.

Only two Republican senators opposed the measure, Sens. Amy Volk of Scarborough and David Woodsome of Waterboro. But Brakey also gained the support of three Senate Democrats including Sen. Bill Diamond of Windham.

Following the vote, Brakey said he had the support of 16 senators going into the vote and gained support of five others he did not expect to have. He noted the bill has 96 co-sponsors in the Legislature including about 50 percent of the 151-member House of Representatives, where the bill heads next.

The bill could face stronger opposition in the House, where Democrats hold a majority and might be more likely to support the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee’s recommendation against the bill.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage has said he supports the concept of allowing law-abiding citizens to carry a handgun concealed and is expected sign Brakey’s bill into law if it reaches his desk.

If the bill passes, Maine would join Alaska, Arizona, Kansas, Vermont and Wyoming in not requiring a permit for a concealed handgun. New Hampshire’s Legislature has also recently passed a bill allowing for carrying without a permit that awaits action from the state’s Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan.

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.