It will be interesting to see whether tempers have cooled when the legislative moratorium on public release of concealed weapons permits expires April 30. Unlikely, but it could happen if people are willing to think this through.
The extravaganza began when a northern Maine police chief let it be known, via Facebook, that he’d received a request from the Bangor Daily News for concealed weapons permit holders. Allies of the National Rifle Association went into action, with the eager assistance of House Republicans.
The outrage they tried to stir was traceable directly to the peculiar decision by a suburban New York newspaper, just weeks after the elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn., to “publish” names and addresses of concealed weapons permit holders.
It was odd because the Journal News never clearly identified a reason for online release, which never appeared in print. It wasn’t genuine reporting but a data dump, and a dubious proceeding for an organization that’s supposed to provide focus and context.
The BDN request was different. As its editor struggled to explain, it wanted statistical information related to domestic violence, and concealed weapons permits are one public source. There’s no statewide database because permit applications remain with the issuing municipality.
The newspaper said it wouldn’t have released any names and addresses, and there’s no reason to doubt this. The request was filed earlier than anticipated because Rep. Corey Wilson (R-Augusta) introduced a bill that would seal permit documents.
The supposed “firestorm” that prompted rapid legislative action had all the hallmarks of a counter-offensive against the dread prospect that some sensible restrictions on firearms may finally be enacted in the wake of Newtown.
For decades, the NRA has beaten back legislative proposals that had overwhelming public support. Lately, polls show 90 percent of the public – yes, 90 percent -- supporting universal background checks for firearms purchases. People understand that allowing mentally unstable individuals to buy guns that are later used in mass shootings isn’t a vindication of the Second Amendment but a violation of basic public safety. The NRA remains unmoved.
So the BDN request may seem like a godsend to certain politicians and lobbyists set back on their heels. It is no such thing. Other than the outrage supposedly felt by concealed weapons permit holders, no one has advanced a plausible reason for sealing these records.
There are dozens of public records that would cause discomfort if someone published them en masse. Most Mainers have a speeding violation, and would be embarrassed if someone published it. Business bankruptcies, divorces, court proceedings – all contain information some would like to remain private.
Government employees would doubtless prefer that their salaries not be available on the Maine Heritage Policy Center’s website. They won’t be reassured by its proclaimed commitment to “tracking every penny of wasteful spending and fiscal mismanagement,” as if a list of salaries and benefits showed that. But no one’s suggesting these records be sealed.
What’s different about concealed weapons permits? Hard to say. For every theory that allowing public access could convince someone to burglarize a home, there’s the equally convincing argument that such knowledge is a deterrent.
One particularly delicious piece of hypocrisy comes from the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, whose executive director, former state Sen. David Trahan, leaped into the fray. Trahan accused newspapers of trying to “label permit holders … with a scarlet letter,” and said newspapers “have failed to police their ranks.” To the contrary, the overwhelming majority of newspapers commenting on the posting of permit holder names condemned it. That’s all the power newspapers have.
But what about SAM? The same organization decrying public access to concealed weapons permits makes extensive use of the state’s list of resident and out-of-state hunting permits to recruit members.
Here’s the problem – holders of hunting permits are even more likely to have firearms at home than concealed weapons permit holders, who may just want them on occasion. If it’s OK to access, and possibly publish, hunting licenses, what’s so different about concealed weapons? I don’t believe SAM can persuasively answer that question.
SAM is well known as a lobbyist for sporting interests. Who’s it defending in the concealed weapons debate? Sportsmen or the NRA?
Legislators were buffaloed into enacting the moratorium by an intense but illogical show of outrage. It won’t get any easier when the Judiciary Committee hears the bill for a permanent shutdown. But before wilting again, legislators should ask: Is there a convincing reason for this bill? Or is it just a well-crafted theatrical performance?
Douglas Rooks is a former daily and weekly newspaper editor who has covered the State House for 28 years. He can be reached at email@example.com.