AUGUSTA — A bill meant to keep the information on Maine concealed-handgun permits confidential moved another step toward becoming law Wednesday.
Lawmakers on the Legislature's Judiciary Committee voted 8-3 to send the measure to the House of Representatives for a vote.
That vote will likely take place sometime during the third week in April, just days before a temporary law that's shielding the data expires on April 30.
Lawmakers also acknowledged Wednesday that the bill, LD 345, first offered by Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, does have costs associated with it.
State and local police, as well as elected town officials, can issue the permits under state law. State police issue permits for people living in unorganized territories and about 350 municipalities. They also issue all permits for individuals who are not Maine residents but want permission to carry a concealed firearm here.
If the bill is approved, cities and towns and others who issue permits would be responsible for redacting information if a public records request is made, and that could cost something.
The new law makes public only three parts of the permit: the town it was issued in, the date of issue and the date of expiration.
The bill, as amended by the committee earlier this month, also directs state police to collect statistical information about Maine's concealed-handgun permit-holders and to report back to the Legislature next year on what it finds and what the agency recommends for policy going forward.
Both that effort and the effort of towns to redact data would cost something, but those costs were not substantial enough to calculate. Costs of the study would be rolled into the Department of Public Safety's existing budget, and guidance from the Maine Municipal Association suggested redacting the data would not cost towns a significant amount.
Still, in order to become law without funding, the Legislature would have to pass the measure with a two-thirds or more majority. That means at least 101 votes for the bill in the state House and 24 in the state Senate.
Under the proposal, only law enforcement and those who issue permits would have access to all of the information on the permit and permit application.
The emergency law was enacted after gun-rights advocates and Republican lawmakers expressed concern over a request for the data from the Bangor Daily News.
And while the newspaper insisted it did not intend to publish "wholesale" the names and addresses of those with concealed-handgun permits, lawmakers said they were worried a map like one a New York newspaper published online showing the homes of people with concealed-handgun permits was one possible result.
The BDN eventually withdrew its record request, but lawmakers said it prompted fears that privacy rights of concealed-handgun permit-holders were at risk.
Judiciary Committee Co-chairwoman Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, said Wednesday there was never any testimony during public hearings on the bill that showed keeping the data public — as it was for more than 30 years — had led to harm.
"There wasn't any testimony at the public hearing on that," Valentino said. "We had a lot of compelling testimony from people stating that if this data was out there, they would fear for their safety."
Valentino said she didn't think permit-holders realized the data was public even though the permit application includes a disclosure noting that the permit, once approved, is a public record.
"A lot of people probably didn't think about it one way or the other until the bill came out and put it to the forefront and people realized all that information was public," Valentino said.
Valentino said she was pleased with the work the committee did on the bill and that law enforcement was supportive of the study component.
"This aggregate kind of data is something they've been wanting to compile for some time now," she said. Next year, she said, lawmakers would have important information to rewrite the legislation on handgun permits in Maine, if they chose to do so.
She said her decision to support sealing the records was not swayed by pressure from the pro-gun activists and noted on Wednesday that the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence supported the committee's version of the bill.
A competing minority report, a bill that received support of only three of the committee's members, would keep the permit data as part of the public record but allow some permit-holders to remain anonymous. Under that proposal, victims of domestic violence could request to keep their permit information confidential. Current or retired law enforcement officers, judges, prosecutors, witnesses in criminal trials and jurors also would be shielded.
Lawmakers mulling their options on which bill to support said they now have three options.
"We can vote for the bill, vote for the minority report or vote against both of them and for current law," said Rep. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, a first-term lawmaker. He said it was a tough issue, but many were concerned that sealing the data completely wasn't the best option.
On Thursday, lawmakers on the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee will take up another bill that would eliminate entirely the permitting process in Maine.
That bill, LD 660, is expected to draw strong support from those who say Maine should be more like Vermont, which is known as a "constitutional carry" state. That means anybody who isn't prohibited from having a firearm can carry it any way they like, concealed or not.
Maine law allows for "open carry" without a concealed-handgun permit. Firearms, except those carried by law enforcement, are prohibited in many public places in Maine, including schools, state parks and the State House.