AUGUSTA — State Sen. Stan Gerzofsky had a question for almost every person who testified in favor of a bill that would make it legal to carry a concealed firearm in Maine without a government permit:
"What are you afraid of?"
Maine is the safest state in the union, Gerzofsky said. "We've said it more than once. It's got the lowest incarceration rate in the country. We've said that more than once. We've said it more than once that we are the second-most heavily armed state in the nation and we don't shoot each other, unless we love each other and that's called domestic violence. So who are we afraid of and what is broken?"
Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, is co-chairman of the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. The panel on Thursday was in its fourth day of public hearings on more than 20 bills that would alter the state's gun laws.
Some said they were afraid of the "criminal element" in society; others said they weren't afraid but wanted to be prepared.
"A lot of people carry a spare tire and jack," said George Rupp, a Shapleigh resident. "What are they afraid of? Some people have fire extinguishers. What are they afraid of? We hope we never have to use these instruments, but we have to be prepared for the incident that does arise that it would be necessary."
Others said they believed Maine's current law requiring a permit to carry a concealed handgun was itself a violation of the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and of a provision in the state constitution that guarantees the right of citizens to keep and bear arms.
The bill, LD 660, authored by Rep. Aaron Libby, R-Waterboro, also would roll back provisions in Maine law that prohibit shooting from a moving motor vehicle or boat. And it would repeal provisions that make it illegal to have a loaded firearm or crossbow inside a car as well.
Libby said Thursday he wasn't opposed to removing provisions that troubled his colleagues.
No one testified against the bill.
Over the past decade, several states, including Alaska, Arizona and Wyoming, have adopted the so-called "constitutional carry" model, which allows anyone who is not prohibited from carrying a firearm to carry one concealed, without a permit.
"The simple fact is, criminals do not care about obeying laws, especially gun laws" Libby told the committee. "Restrictive gun laws will never make people safer."
Stavros Mendros, a former state representative and city councilor from Lewiston, also testified in favor of the bill. Mendros pointed out the bill would eliminate the debate over whether concealed-handgun-permit records should be open to the public.
Another bill before the Legislature would make concealed-handgun-permit data confidential. Mendros said he opposed that approach.
"If these are going to be documents held by our law enforcement agencies, then why can't the public have access to them?" Mendros asked the committee. "You don't strengthen the Second Amendment by watering down the First Amendment."
Mendros said that if the Legislature failed to pass the measure, he would initiate a petition to force a referendum on the constitutional carry issue.
During the course of daylong testimony on the bill, tempers flared on occasion and one person testifying before the committee suggested lawmakers should be charged with treason if they don't approve the bill.
"Anyone on this committee who doesn't support LD 660 is a traitor to his or her country and should be thrown in prison or receive the death penalty," Lewiston resident James Lynch told the committee.
Rep. Joshua Plante, D-Berwick, couldn't believe his ears.
"I just want to make sure I heard that correctly," he said to Lynch. "If anyone on this committee here does not support this measure, they should be tried for treason and if it must be necessary they should be served the death penalty, correct?"
Lynch said Plante had heard correctly. "You are hired to uphold the Constitution and do things for the people and not for your special interests or your paycheck," Lynch said. "Money is good, but I'll tell you what, sooner or later, man, all the corrupt politicians, all the special interests, they will be going out pretty soon."
Committee members said they were keeping an open mind on the bill and the process.
Rep. Timothy Marks, D-Pittston, a retired state trooper who sits on the committee, said he worries about the safety of law enforcement. He also worries about people not fully understanding the consequences of using deadly force against another person, he said.
"I can foresee people overstepping the bounds," Marks said.
Marks noted during the hearing that some people take seriously their training and practice with firearms, but many who want to carry a firearm do not.
"If people think they are going to be stopping bank robbers and stuff like that, there's a lot of room for error," he said.
The committee is expected to revisit the bill again in early May.