AUGUSTA — A law change that seals concealed-handgun-permit records that had previously been public passed the Maine House of Representatives on a vote of 106-40 Tuesday.
The vote came after weeks of hearings and debate over whether that permit information should be part of the public record or accessible only to law enforcement and town officials who issue the permits.
The vote tally Tuesday was important because the bill needs a two-thirds majority to be enacted quickly, under an emergency preamble that would allow it to become law as soon as it's signed by Gov. Paul LePage.
Tuesday's House tally gave supporters of the bill five votes more than that, but the measure's fate in the Senate is less certain.
"I was pleased with the vote, but I'm never comfortable until something is signed by the governor," said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, which lobbied in support of the bill.
Trahan said others including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine were lobbying aggressively against the bill and a five-vote margin in the House wasn't a slam dunk by any stretch.
"This isn't over, I don't think," Trahan said. "It's close, and too close for my comfort."
The bill's original author, Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, said he wouldn't predict what the state Senate would do. But on Tuesday, he was taking comfort in the vote by his House colleagues, including many Democrats, to close the records.
"This definitely sends a signal to the Senate that the House is going to support this measure, and I hope the Senate will follow through as well," Wilson said after the vote.
His bill came in the wake of a request from the Bangor Daily News. The newspaper, using Maine's open records laws, requested access to the concealed-handgun-permit data in Maine by filing requests across the state to issuing agencies, including Maine State Police.
That request followed the action of a newspaper in New York state that gathered handgun-permit data and published it in an online map, after a shooter killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Despite repeated statements from the Bangor Daily News that it had no intention of publishing the data "wholesale," gun-rights advocates said people with permits could be put in danger if their information was released.
The Legislature previously passed a short-term emergency law that closed the records from public review. That measure is set to expire April 30.
Several lawmakers speaking Tuesday in opposition to the seal dismissed those arguments, noting that Maine already has a law that allows victims of domestic violence to protect their addresses and other information from public disclosure.
It is estimated that about 30,000 people, including 5,000 nonresidents, hold Maine concealed-handgun permits.
Tuesday pitted gun-rights and privacy advocates against those who said keeping the permit records open would provide an important check and counterbalance that keeps the government honest and fair when issuing the permits.
Others said they rejected the notion that Maine needed 30,000 people secretly carrying handguns to keep the state safe.
"That they should be able to walk in our communities, go in schools, be in our stores, but to keep it secret about whether they have some kind of permit?" Rep. Paul McGowan, D-Cape Neddick, asked his colleagues. "It feels to me like a request based upon fear, that we must live our lives in fear that somehow people might know we have guns. I reject that fear; I reject a future that says we have to have 30,000 people in the state of Maine that have secret permits. I reject this fear and I reject this future for our state."
The bill allows for the release of some aggregate data on permit-holders, including the total number issued, expiration dates and the towns in which permits are issued. It also calls on Maine State Police to report back to the Legislature on the issue in 2014 with more comprehensive aggregate data and an update on how things are going.
State police issue only a portion of the permits in Maine, including all permits for nonresidents and for residents of the state's unorganized territories.
Local police chiefs, boards of selectmen, and city and town councils also issue permits. To be issued a permit, an applicant must pass psychiatric and criminal background checks, submit to fingerprinting and be deemed of sound moral character by the issuing authority.
The bill now will move down the hall to the Senate where the measure also needs two-thirds support to become an emergency law.
If passed there and signed by LePage, the bill would go into effect immediately.