AUGUSTA — A bill that would allow concealed weapon permit holders to bring their handguns into the State House and nearby areas has won approval from the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

The panel voted 7-4 last week to pass an amended version of LD 692, a bill sponsored by Rep. Dale Crafts, R-Lisbon.

Democrat Rep. Stephen Hanley of Gardiner voted with Republicans to support a measure that allows permit holders to carry their handguns on capital grounds, including the State House, the Burton Cross building and adjacent parking areas.

Some proponents said that allowing trained concealed weapon holders would create a safer atmosphere at the capital.

Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, the Senate chairman on the committee, said the bill was a good idea at “a volatile time,” and would allow permit holders to respond to a security threat.

“Those that have gone through the process of getting a concealed weapon know how to handle a gun and they know when to use it,” Mason said. “I think it would provide a level of safety, especially for those of us that are there every day.”

Opponents said the State House was the last place they wanted to see someone other than law enforcement packing heat.

Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said allowing permit holders to bring their guns into the Capitol could bring unnecessary tension to the State House.

“These bills don’t have anything to do with the Second Amendment or a person’s right to bear arms,” he said. “It just has to do with a person’s right to bear hidden guns. If they (bill proponents) were being honest, they’d make it an open-carry bill, that way we’d know who to debate and who not to.”

Open carry refers to the public display of a weapon.

Mason said the bill made sense given the security concerns at the State House.

Capitol Security currently stations one officer in the State House lobby. Recently Gov. Paul LePage added another officer station outside the governor’s office. 

Following the shooting incident in Arizona, legislative leadership requested the installation of weapons screening equipment acquired through a Homeland Security grant.

Mason said that safety was a concern amid heightened political rhetoric.

“I think this would provide a level of safety,” Mason said. “Those that have gone through the process of getting a concealed weapon know how to handle a gun and they know when to use it. I think it would provide a level of safety, especially for those of us that are there every day.”

Gerzofsky said proponents’ State House safety concerns were overstated.

“Who are they afraid of?” he asked. “Are they afraid of demonstrators throwing toilet paper out of the (House) balcony?”

He added, “They just think they have a Second Amendment right to pack guns where ever they go. Well, you can bear arms without a concealed weapons permit.”

Rep. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, is co-chairman of the committee. Plummer said Tuesday that he personally didn’t feel unsafe at the State House.

“The worst thing I’ve seen is when a group of environmental terrorists dropped leaflets on our heads in the House chamber,” he said. “Another time someone loosened the lug nuts on some cars when a vote didn’t go their way, but luckily people found out before they drove home.”

Nonetheless, Plummer said he supports the bill. He noted that at least six members of the Criminal Justice committee had concealed weapons permits.

Gerzofsky said the bill was another example of Republicans getting sidetracked by social issues.

“The last I checked, the election was about jobs and the economy,” he said. “I don’t think it was about guns, abortion and child labor laws. I think some of these guys are going to be surprised in two years when voters want to talk about jobs again.”

A slate of concealed weapons bills has already appeared before the Criminal Justice Committee. Six were related to concealed weapons and included proposals that would increase the number of places where permit holders can wear their sidearms, such as bars or the workplace.

One bill, sponsored by Rep. Crafts, would change the state’s concealed weapons law by increasing the number of places where a person can carry a weapon while lowering the cost for obtaining a permit.

Plummer said some of the proposals were tabled last week, while others were voted down. He said some of the language in the defeated proposals could be added to the bills that make it out of committee.

Some of the bills have encountered stiff resistance from law enforcement groups and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

Peter Gore, a spokesman for the chamber, said last week that the chamber had received more calls on the weapons bills than any other bills this session, particularly one that would allow permit holders to bring guns to a labor dispute or the workplace.

Five of the bills are sponsored by Rep. Rich Cebra, R-Casco. One of Cebra’s proposals would allow permit holders to wear a sidearm in various locations, including bars and state parks.

Some of the weapons bills are backed by the National Rifle Association, which was active during the 2010 election. The NRA’s Political Victory Fund has given money to candidates and PACs in Maine elections since at least 2002. However, it provided close to $50,000 in 2010 compared to $5,950 in 2008.

Most of that money, about $47,000, has gone toward supporting Gov. Paul LePage. The group recently filed an activity report showing an expenditure of $26,336 in radio ads supporting the governor this year.

Plummer disputed Gerzofsky’s claim that Republican interest in the weapons bills was a distraction from their job-creation mandate from voters.

“I don’t consider the Constitution of the United States or this state to be a social issue,” he said. “Bearing arms is a right people have, and I believe in that right.”

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