LEWISTON — A curiously timed and anonymously filed request for public records on concealed handgun permits in Maine helped fast-track an emergency law that passed the Legislature on Tuesday, temporarily sealing those records from public view.
But nearly as fast as the request came in, the account it came from — firstname.lastname@example.org — went dead. Messages sent to it by the state and media organizations went unreturned and bounced back with a message from the computer servers at Google stamped: “permanent delivery failure.”
Who sent the request remains unknown, but lawmakers — especially those in favor of sealing the records — leaned on it to justify why the Legislature had to act quickly to close public records that had been open for inspection for 28 years. The emergency law closes the records until April 30.
The crisis developed when the Bangor Daily News filed a request for the same records under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act. After criticism from Republican lawmakers, Gov. Paul LePage and others in Maine (including many of its readers and advertisers), the newspaper withdrew its request.
Just hours later, Maine State Police received the anonymous request.
LePage then requested an emergency bill that was sponsored by Democratic majority leaders in the House and Senate.
“It was a manufactured crisis,” said state Rep. Teresea Hayes, D-Buckfield, the day after the vote.
Hayes, one of only 11 lawmakers to vote against sealing the records, questioned the move during an abbreviated floor debate on the emergency bill Tuesday. She pointed out that the law that sets up the permitting process makes confidential all information in a permit application. Only the final permit was a public record.
Hayes also noted that the FOAA law didn’t force police to ship that permit data out electronically. All FOAA requires is that the recipient allow the public (or newspaper) to inspect them in person, Hayes said.
“This (law) wasn’t an ‘oops,'” Hayes said. “This wasn’t something that a prior Legislature did without forethought or intent.”
She added, “Nobody offered any information to suggest that the deliberate leaving of the permit information, as part of the public record, has caused harm to anyone. So suspending access to that information seemed unwarranted, and it clearly wasn’t an emergency.”
Christopher Parr, an attorney who handles FOAA requests for the Maine State Police, noted in an email message Thursday that he still had not made contact with whomever sent the request from email@example.com.
“At this writing, I have not received a response to either of the emails I’ve sent,” Parr wrote in a message to editors at the Sun Journal.
Some lawmakers who voted to close the record agonized over the decision afterward, and said the pressure from within their respective caucuses was insurmountable.
Most didn’t know at the time of the vote that the second FOAA request could have been a hoax and likely impossible to fulfill.
State Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, who voted to close the record, said she’s since heard from constituents who are angry with her for the vote. Craven said she’s a gun-control advocate, so she made the choice to temporarily seal the permits with some trepidation. She views her vote as a decision to put the debate “on hold.”
As the bill moved its way toward passage Tuesday, it was stalled for what legislative leaders called “a small technical” amendment. But there were actually multiple amendments, and some more substantive than indicated, according to the state’s top lawyer, Attorney General Janet Mills.
Mills is a concealed weapons permit-holder in Maine, she said.
She said she alerted lawmakers to concerns she had about the bill, which included language that would have prohibited the release of gun permit data that was obtained prior to this week. The other amendment ensured law enforcement officers would still have access to the permit information.
Those amendments satisfied her concerns, but she didn’t herald the bill as a landmark change or one that was going to vastly improve public safety.
The changes to the bill made it legally “defensible,” she said.
“As to the merits of it, or the policy, or politics of it, it’s not for me to comment,” Mills said. “This obviously calls for a balancing act between the First Amendment and the people’s right to know versus those who believe the Second Amendment protects the identity of those with concealed weapons permits.”
Maine’s move to seal off its permit records is part of a nationwide trend that emerged after a New York newspaper published an online map with the addresses of concealed weapon permit holders. That drew the furor of gun-rights advocates.
The Bangor Daily News’ FOAA request specifically said it would not publish the names but would use the data in reporting projects.
Aaron Mackey, a lawyer with the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press based in Arlington, Va., said of the 12 states that make concealed handgun permits public, 10 — including Maine — are considering making them confidential in some fashion.
“We are seeing a lot of legislation that’s being introduced in reaction to what happened in New York,” Mackey said.
Many of those states, including New York, also took a fast-track approach to quickly sealing off the records. That type of approach is problematic, Mackey said.
“Any time you have government taking action and there is minimal or no public scrutiny of it — either being able to see the proceedings or being able to obtain documents to understand how they act — there’s worries about what the government’s doing and whether they are conducting their business honestly,” Mackey said.
He said much of the legislative intent behind keeping concealed handgun permits open was to ensure they were being issued fairly, essentially to help protect the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, he said. Media scrutiny of the data can uncover important trends as well as discover flaws in the system.
“There were stories that showed, in a number of different states, that there were a percentage of permit holders that should have had their licenses revoked, and it’s that sort of disclosure that can lead to a better system,” Mackey said.
How other states handle concealed hand gun permits
Only 15 states, including Alabama, California and until Tuesday, Maine, allowed public access to permit information including the names of permit holders and their addresses. Ten of those states are currently considering changes to their laws.
Another 23 states, including Connecticut and New Jersey, ban all access to the data.
The remaining 12 states, including Vermont, either do not require a permit to carry a concealed handgun or have partially open records. In Ohio, for example, permits are not open to the public but the state allows journalists to inspect but not copy information from the records.
In Montana, the permits are open “unless the demands of individual privacy clearly exceed the merits of public disclosure.”
Mississippi makes a concealed handgun permit confidential for the first 45 days it is issued; after that, it’s a public record.