I am a law-abiding gun owner.
I am also a fervent proponent of public access, not just because I am a journalist, but because I am committed to knowing how my government is conducting my business.
And, I am an opponent of LD 345, an act to conceal the personal identifying information of concealed handgun permit holders, as written.
The emergency bill, sponsored by Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, was printed on Feb. 12 and drew immediate attention. And, then, immediate controversy.
The clamor was so intense that Gov. Paul LePage proposed an emergency measure on Tuesday to temporarily shield concealed permits just to give everyone a chance to calm down.
You know, in the rational view to “keep calm and carry on”?
That temporary measure quickly passed with overwhelming support in the House and Senate, which legislative leaders and many among the rank and file have since said was more a measure to impose peace in the Legislature than to shield public access.
There is little doubt that when LD 345 comes before Judiciary, emotions will flare again, perhaps equal to what we saw last week, but LePage was right to suggest a time-out to give reasoned thought some chance to prevail.
And I truly hope it will.
In the meantime, opponents and proponents will get organized for the fight.
Let’s look at what brought us to this point.
LD 345 is before the Legislature at the request of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. They say they are proposing the measure to prevent identity theft and protect personal safety, which is a just-adopted view absolutely opposing any public access to concealed handgun permit holders. The measure seeks to reverse 28 years of access that has been fully supported by a diversity of Legislatures and governors.
That’s a radical shift in ideology for this respected conservation and rights group.
When George Smith was the executive director of SAM, he routinely requested access to personal identifying information on hunting licenses from Inland Fisheries & Wildlife to compare SAM’s membership list to active hunters, shopping for new members.
A decade ago, before special interest groups used email to solicit members, membership drives were paper and envelope operations, and SAM needed access to full names and street addresses of hunting license holders to mail solicitations. So, under FOAA, SAM asked for — and got — those licenses every year.
In 2000, IF&W upped the charge of access to these licenses from something under $2,000 to a startling $15,000 and Smith became enraged by that cost, arguing it was a barrier to access.
Smith didn’t dwell, though. He acted, and his energy brought together a small band of Mainers — myself among them — to form the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition.
Our group, which also included Rick Levasseur from the Bangor Daily News and Jeff Ham of the Press Herald, worked together to raise awareness and protect public access and, in 2002, MFOIC reported results of its public records audit of local government.
That audit, which demonstrated widespread noncompliance with Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, prompted the Legislature to create the Committee to Study Compliance with Maine’s FOAA, a committee that was formalized as the Right to Know Advisory Committee in 2005.
In the years since, the RTK Committee has recommended and supported a wide number of revisions to FOAA, including establishing a first-in-the-nation process to review every FOAA exemption to determine whether it meets a test of public interest. That review process has since been mimicked in other states, which is something Maine should be very proud of.
RTK also pushed for the creation of an Ombudsman position at the Attorney General’s Office to provide guidance to the public on FOAA issues, among a number of improvements that have both protected privacy (by shielding all Social Security numbers in governmental records) and improved transparency (by requiring minutes to be taken at all public meetings).
We have Smith and the support of SAM to thank for igniting this valuable study and advisory process.
Last year, as part of its required work, RTK reviewed exemptions in Title 25, the statute that governs concealed handgun applications and permits.
At the time, there was no exemption to shield permits so the committee was not bound to review the necessity of such an exemption, but the very people who are now supporting LD 345 were aware of the Title 25 review and could have, if they believed necessary, asked the committee to consider creating that shield. No one did.
If someone had, the committee would certainly have considered it and any resulting suggestion would have been subject to the Judiciary Committee’s exemption review process. That process includes an evaluation of whether privacy interests (like trade secrets) outweigh the public interest (like criminal convictions) in the disclosure of the records, and whether the exemption is as narrowly tailored as possible.
It’s interesting to note that, under Title 25, dates of birth are not required to be printed on concealed permits. And, yet, the issuing authorities include DOBs anyway, expanding access to information beyond what statute requires.
So, while the exemption is narrowly tailored, the issuance of permits is not.
Fixing that over-sharing of information will negate the threat of identity theft.
It’s also worth noting that, in 2011, Gov. LePage proposed and supported legislation that actually strengthened the public access requirement of concealed handgun permits through a change in law requiring that these permits “must be available for public inspection.”
So, what has changed?
The Journal News printed a map of concealed permit holders in two New York counties.
And, several weeks later, a home in White Plains was burglarized.
At the time, White Plains Public Safety Commissioner David Chong said his department was “considering” the connection between the map and the burglary but — and it’s a big but — police had not yet found evidence to indicate that was the case.
Nor have they since.
Even so, questions posed by lawmakers and activists in New York suggesting a positive link between the map and the burglary became fact on the web, arming the draft of LD 345 to “protect” permit holders.
Is a connection possible?
But, might it also be possible to consider happenstance is more likely to blame?
The Journal News mapped the home addresses of all pistol permit holders in Westchester and Rockland counties. Combined, those counties are home to 1.2 million people, nearly the number of people living in the whole of Maine.
Isn’t it likely that, given that population pool, that a burglar might have entered a home searching for valuables and stumbled upon a gun safe without ever knowing the owner was a permit-holder ?
That certainly happens in Maine and no map has ever been printed in a newspaper here.
That’s a fact, but the post-Newtown conversation on guns hasn’t been entirely fact-based across the nation or here at home.
The fact is, when government considers issuing a special permit or license to someone who is then allowed to do something that would be illegal for anyone else, we have a right to know of that license and license-holder.
And, the fact is, open government has been a call emanating from main-line Republicans, including LePage, the tea party and Democrats alike as a matter of transparency.
Political pressure to erase public access to permits also erases the principle of transparency.
Public access to governmental records is not a convenience.
Access laws are a powerful tool to guarantee government accountability and public access is a absolute right to be protected.
That fact was not adequately heard at the State House last week in the scurry to embrace harmony.
Instead, the public witnessed enough leaps of logic and postured prose to fill the pages of a Dr. Seuss Beginner Book, without the rhyme. Or the reason.
Judith Meyer is a Sun Journal managing editor, and a member of both the Right to Know Advisory Committee and the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org