AUGUSTA — On a 7-6 vote Thursday, lawmakers on the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee rejected a bill that would have made it legal to carry a concealed handgun without a permit in Maine.

The bill, LD 660, would overturn Maine’s requirement that only trained and vetted individuals who pay a permit fee can carry concealed handguns.

The mostly party-line vote Thursday evening followed more than two weeks of debate and discussion on the topic and reflects how divided the Legislature is on gun issues. 

Gun rights advocates have said Maine’s law requiring a permit to carry a concealed handgun could be in violation of the state and federal constitutions, but others have argued the government has the right to regulate firearms.

The so-called “divided” report means the bill will generate a vigorous debate about an individual’s constitutional right to keep and bear arms contrasted with the government’s ability and need to place reasonable restrictions on that right.

Earlier in the day, Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, the Senate chairman of the committee, said advocates often hold up parts of the Bill of Rights to highlight their issue or the right they want most protected.

“Don’t forget; all of our rights are for all of our citizens and none of our rights should be trumping rights of other citizens,” Gerzofsky told his colleagues. “None of our rights are absolute; you don’t have the right to yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater, we all know that.”

The committee, on another 7-6, party-line vote, approved a bill that would require federal background checks on people buying weapons at gun shows in Maine.

That bill, LD 267, sponsored by Gerzofsky, drew heated debate from committee members.

“This bill, to me, is everything about individual freedoms,” Rep. Jethro Pease, R-Morrill, said. “We have the right to sell a car; we should have the right to sell a gun. I should have the right to sell my shoes, if I want to sell them.”

Pease and others said the bill would do little to prevent those really intent on obtaining guns illegally for ill-intended purposes from doing so.

“To me, it’s just another bill that makes us feel good but it accomplishes nothing,” Pease said.

Gerzofsky said, “This ain’t feel-good about anything, except it’s feel-good about the gun being used at Columbine coming from gun shows.”

Gerzofsky said he wanted to extend the background check for all private sales, including those made through the popular classified ad publication “Uncle Henry’s.”

Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, the committee’s House chairman, and a former sheriff for Cumberland County, said he too supported the background check legislation for private sales.

“Despite all of the reactions to reactions and the passions surrounding a number of these bills, I firmly believe that our energies have to be focused on the point of sale,” Dion said. “It’s not the instrument, it’s the individual.”

Sen. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, said he didn’t think background checks would solve any problem.

Plummer said he heard recently from local police about how a gun purchased at a gun show in Maine had exchanged hands several times before being used in a crime.

“Would a check at a gun show have prevented that from happening?” Plummer asked. “I don’t think so.”

Plummer said he realizes lawmakers have “bumped up against the Second Amendment a few times and maybe necessarily so, but boy, when I bump up against it I want to be sure I’m solving a problem and I can’t see the problem to solve here.”

Others said limiting private sales at gun shows, even though most sales at gun shows now are conducted by federally licensed firearms dealers and require background checks, was simply unfair policy.

“At the end of the day, an individual currently has the right to buy or sell a firearm at any other location as a private seller in the state of Maine,” Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, said. “If an individual is adamantly determined to get a firearm, especially if they are determined to conduct an act of violence, they are going to do that by any means.”

The panel also narrowly approved a bill that would allow police in Maine to ask for identification from a person who is carrying a firearm openly in public under certain circumstances.  

The law change would allow a police officer to ask a person for identification if the officer determined the “totality of circumstances” led them to believe there was concern for public safety.

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