LEWISTON — Democratic lawmakers Monday predicted easy passage of an emergency law offered by Republican Gov. Paul LePage that would temporarily close off access to information printed on concealed handgun permits in Maine.
The measure comes in response to a Freedom of Access Act request by the Bangor Daily News that sought access to the information on all concealed handgun permit holders in Maine.
And while the newspaper repeatedly stated it had no intention of printing a wholesale list of permit holder names, it drew withering criticism for its request.
In the wake of a political firestorm, the newspaper withdrew its request, but LePage's administration said a subsequent request from an "anonymous" source prompted additional concern that the privacy rights of gun owners could be violated.
Democrats said Monday they support the bill — which would seal the records for 60 days — as a way to ensure a fair and open process and allow the emotionally-charged issue that pits the rights of gun owners against the need to keep public records open a chance to "cool" down.
"This moratorium is about buying some time and buying some breathing room," Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said Monday. McCabe said he and Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, joined forces with LePage and his staff late last week to craft the "emergency" legislation.
McCabe is the assisstant majority leader in the House and Jackson is the assistant majority leader in the Senate.
McCabe said he believes there is enough support among members of the Democratic caucus for the bill, and said he believes Republican lawmakers will vote in unison for the measure.
The votes on the measure Tuesday will be one of the first officially recorded roll-call votes of the session. A roll call includes a specific record on whether each member of the Legislature voted for or against a bill, or was not present for the vote.
House Minority Leader Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, also issued a statement Monday heralding passage of the emergency measure.
"I'm very encouraged to see that the first vote of the 126th Legislature will be on a bipartisan bill to support privacy and gun owners' rights, proposed by a Republican governor and enacted by a Democratic Legislature," Fredette said in a prepared statement.
But McCabe and House Majority Leader Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, were more cautious in their language, noting the law would only be temporary in nature and was not meant to yet permanently seal off public access to the information.
The emergency bill, according to Berry, is meant to give the Legislature time to have, "a full and deliberate public process around this issue."
It's also meant to stave off a push by Republicans to enact, without due public process, a bill sponsored by Rep. Wilson Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, that would permanently seal off publicly accessible concealed handgun permit information, Berry said.
The impetus of Wilson's bill was to protect against identify theft, but so far lawmakers have not presented any information to indicate how access to the information has put anybody's information or safety in jeopardy.
Robert Schwartz, the executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said Monday he was unaware of any situation in Maine where the release of public information attached to a concealed carry permit led to any identity theft or other crime.
"I'm equally unaware of there ever being a case in Maine where a permit holder committed a crime," Schwartz said.
He said his organization is supportive of the public's right to government information, but also supports the idea of a short-term moratorium while lawmakers craft a measure that balances the right to know with the right to privacy in certain cases. "There's just got to be cooler heads on this whole firearms thing," Schwartz said.
Berry said Monday he believed the short-term moratorium would allow lawmakers to more carefully consider Wilson's bill and craft some compromises and some "outside-the-box solutions that make sure both the right to know and right to bear arms are upheld."
Last Thursday, Republican lawmakers, including Wilson, briefed reporters on Wilson's bill while expressing outrage at the Bangor newspaper's request. The next day the paper withdrew its request, and LePage announced his proposal for a temporary moratorium on the release of the information.
In an email message Monday, Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, said she agreed to the LePage proposal last week, if for no other reason, than to help cool tempers around the issue. Craven said she too would support a full public process including full public hearings on any proposals to change the state's Freedom of Access Act.
Legislative leaders said they would move to suspend the rules in the House and the Senate in order to move the governor's bill to a floor vote without the typical process, which involves a chance for the public to testify before various legislative committees about the pros and cons of the bill before a vote.
To be enacted, the bill would need to be approved by a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Legislature on Tuesday.
McCabe said he knows there could be some who may vote against the bill, but believes there is enough agreement in the Legislature to pass the temporary law.
But other Democratic lawmakers, speaking off the record, said they had serious concerns about rolling back the right to public information in order to protect the privacy rights of a relatively small group — about 30,000 people — of handgun permit holders in Maine.
Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, said Monday he believed a 60-day moratorium was a reasonable and sensible approach to take in light of the on-going debate on guns in Maine and nationwide.
"I think the importance of the Legislature is to make wise judgment calls and to ensure that the entire process around gun-control legislation is one that is thoughtful and takes in all perspectives and all views," Goodall said. "Taking this step (Tuesday) is an important step to having a constructive dialogue going forward."