In the middle of the day Wednesday, a poll revealing that a majority of Mainers support public access to concealed carry permits was released.
The margin in favor of public access was small, but clear.
Several hours later, in a 10-3 vote, the Judiciary Committee supported closing access to those permits — against the majority will of the people.
Committee members have been heavily lobbied by fear and misinformation on this issue, and accused of all kinds of possible (and false) constitutional infringements, and many were torn to support a special interest rather than upholding the public interest.
If passed by the full Legislature, LD 345 would create a special shield of a government-required, government-regulated and government-enforced permit. It would be the first "secret" permit issued to individual citizens in Maine.
Under current law, there is only one permit shielded — under Title 7 — protecting trade secrets of livestock nutrition plans noted on a commercial agricultural permit.
There are a host of trade secret shields in Maine law to ensure fair competition in commerce, but none to conceal government-issued permits for personal use, like hunting, fishing or foraging.
So, the fact that we’re considering creating the first such secret permit is a move that requires a deliberative and thoughtful discourse. That has not yet happened.
In fact, when the measure to create a temporary shield was passed in February at the governor’s request, lawmakers made public and private assurances all around that they were supporting the measure not because they believed in it, but because it would quell angry sentiment clouding forthcoming discussions on LD 345.
The temporary shield did not quell sentiment. In fact, its passage was used as ammunition to further politicize debate.
Just before the start of Wednesday’s work session on this bill, as committee members were getting settled, there was some audible grumbling in the audience among the bill’s proponents that the bill should never have come before Judiciary in the first place. That, had it come before Criminal Justice it would have “flown through.”
That may be true, if LD 345 was a gun bill.
It is not.
It is a public access bill. Or, more correctly, an anti-access bill.
That it fell under the jurisdiction of Judiciary was clear to Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, when he made his motion to refer it there, a motion then approved by the full House, and was also clear to Sen. Linda Valentino, D-York, in her motion approved by the full Senate to bring it to Judiciary.
However, once assigned to committee, the conversation immediately veered toward gun ownership rather than upholding the public trust of government regulators or the desire of citizens to know who among us is permitted to carry a concealed weapon (including certain journalists and a sitting governor).
Much of the argument (made mostly by men) surrounding the move to shield these permits has been to protect women, but 56.6 percent of women polled want to keep permits in the public domain, according to Wednesday's poll.
It’s not that women don’t recognize the need to protect victims from abusers, but there is also a great desire of women to know who — whether a new flame or someone from a past broken relationship — is permitted to carry a concealed handgun.
That more woman want to maintain public access to these permits may also indicate that woman know victims already have address protection available to them through the state's easy-to-navigate Address Confidentiality Program.
Judiciary didn’t discuss these issues during two work sessions, nor did members discuss the potential desire of a citizen to know the people involved in a nearby and heated road dispute are permitted to conceal carry, or the legitimate need of media and the public to examine the validity of the regulatory process, or the desire of the governor’s office to check existence of a permit for an enraged lawmaker, as that office did in 2011.
And, then, there’s this little wrinkle in the current proposal:
Applications for concealed carry permits are already confidential and, if LD 345 is passed, the permits themselves would become confidential.
However, when a board of selectmen votes to grant a permit application — as is the case in many municipalities where selectmen serve as issuing authorities — the vote is done in open session because there is absolutely no secret voting permitted in Maine.
If there is any doubt that concealed carry permits are governmental documents, just look at how an uncounted number are issued: by application to, review of, vote of and enforcement of government officials.
In towns where selectmen opt not to issue permits, that responsibility falls to State Police, which brings forth another wrinkle, and it’s a costly one.
After Wednesday’s work session, the Sun Journal was contacted by a retired police officer who — under the current temporary shield — requested the number of concealed carry permits issued in his hometown and was told that data could not be retrieved from the software now used to store that information at the Department of Public Safety.
He was told the statistical information currently on file can't be sorted and can’t be retrieved.
In fact, a lawmaker who followed up on this oddity was told — in general terms — that the concealed carry permit “computer is old, the program is old, we shovel stuff in and can’t get anything out.”
The thing is, in what was considered a compromise move, LD 345 was amended to maintain public access to aggregate data. However, if the statistical data cannot be sorted or retrieved without a total revamp of the computer system and storage platform, that’s as good as blocking public access to that data.
Or, as the retired police officer told the Sun Journal, State Police are dropping data into a black hole with no way of retrieving it for analysis or distribution without spending money for a system upgrade and labor-intensive re-importation of data.
That cost factor was never discussed at the committee level, as it should have been, to adequately determine whether the cost was something the public could bear.
So, when the Legislature takes up this bill on the floor Tuesday — as is expected — we will see whether the loud power of the gun lobby trumps the public's fundamental right to access governmental records.
And whether, as is required for emergency legislation to pass, two-thirds of House members are willing to ignore the majority public view upholding public access to concealed carry permits.
And, then tap a not-yet-discussed number of public dollars to implement secrecy.
The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.