AUGUSTA — In near-unanimous votes in the Maine House and Senate on Tuesday, lawmakers agreed to temporarily seal from the public concealed-handgun permit records.
The Senate passed the bill 33-0, with two senators absent, while the House passed the bill 129-11, with 11 not voting on the measure. The action closes off public access to the permit data until April 30.
The bill, passed as an emergency measure, moved through both bodies with only marginal debate. The bill was not vetted before any legislative committee and no public hearings were held.
While gun rights advocates heralded the move, those concerned with the public's right to government information panned the process and the premise of the measure, noting the data were public for nearly 30 years without incident.
"Any time the public’s access to information is shuttered without adequate citizen participation, the people’s faith in government cannot help but be eroded," Earl Brechlin, the president of the Maine Press Association, said in an email message.
The measure was introduced by Gov. Paul LePage last week after the Bangor Daily News sought access to the data. The request prompted concerns from the state's gun lobby that those with permits would be placed in jeopardy or would have their privacy compromised.
Editors at the newspaper repeatedly said they had no intention of publishing the data "wholesale" and intended only to use the information for a two-year reporting project on domestic violence and drug crimes.
The newspaper later rescinded its request, but by then, according to lawmakers and LePage's staff, another request had been filed by an anonymous source.
That request included only an email address, without the name of the actual person, seeking the information. A hard copy of the email request sent to Christopher Parr, a staff attorney with the Maine Attorney General's Office, was released to reporters Tuesday. A message sent to the address seeking additional information bounced back as undeliverable.
Brechlin said lawmakers' reaction to the threat seemed exaggerated, given the circumstances.
"The perceived threat here was not any actual misuse of information but merely a legal and legitimate request to access it," Brechlin said. "The fact that the Legislature bypassed its own well-respected protocols for consideration of right-to-know legislation is extraordinarily disheartening."
But conservative gun-rights advocates were trumpeting Tuesday's vote as a sweeping victory and an example of bipartisan harmony.
LePage's bill was sponsored by Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, in the Senate and by Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, in the House.
Sen. Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, the Senate minority leader, praised the emergency measure prior to the enactment vote Tuesday. He also thanked LePage, Jackson and Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland.
"I also realize this is an event that is, well, rare," Thibodeau told his colleagues. "To take a bill in one day and get it down to the Governor's Office for his signature."
Thibodeau said quick passage of the bill Tuesday proved contrary to speculation that the current lawmaking session would be one of the most divisive in history.
"Who could have imagined that our very first opportunity to have a roll-call vote would result in a bill that was brought forward by the chief executive, sponsored by the majority party and will indeed probably receive unanimous support in the Senate," Thibodeau said. "I think it's a day that the folks back home would be very proud of this institution. I'm incredibly proud of this institution having taken the action that they have."
Not all lawmakers Tuesday were sounding the bipartisan trumpet. Several in the House objected to the procedures used to rush the bill through and to the premise that immediate action was required and only possible under the Legislature's rules for emergency legislation.
"Let me be perfectly clear about this bill," said Rep. Brian Jones, D-Freedom. "This is not a Second Amendment bill, this is a First Amendment bill. This is not an emergency in the context of the Maine State Constitution; this is a political emergency."
Jones said the need to sweep the bill through was no more a crisis than the need to act quickly on an issue before the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee concerning the use of rubber worms in bass fishing in Maine.
"What we are asking this body to do is to suspend First Amendment rights of transparency in our government to solve a nonexisting constitutional emergency," Jones said. "Subjects of such great moment, which are restricting the rights of our citizens to have access to our governmental records — moments such as these should be deliberated carefully and citizens should be allowed to speak to their legislators and have their voices heard on those matters."
Jones called the process "fundamentally flawed."
But news releases issued by other lawmakers and LePage praised the bill's passage for protecting permit holders while allowing the Legislature time to figure out a way to balance the rights to privacy with the rights to public access.
“I applaud the Legislature for expediting this matter,” LePage said in a prepared statement. “Now the debate can continue in the Legislature based on the merits of the bill while ensuring safety for all Mainers."
Also before lawmakers is a measure sponsored by Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, that would make permanent the closure of the permit records. The measure is expected to be heard before the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee in the weeks ahead.
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said he was pleased with Tuesday's vote.
“Republicans strongly support the substance of this bill and we look forward to seeing a more permanent solution work its way through the legislative process,” Fredette said in a prepared statement.