AUGUSTA — On a 21-14 vote, a bill allowing handgun owners to carry concealed weapons without permits gained approval in the Maine Senate on Thursday.

The bill, LD 652, sponsored by state Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, would do away with Maine’s requirement that an individual wanting to carry a concealed weapon first obtain a permit from Maine State Police or local officials. The permit requirement now in place requires a criminal background check, a mental health screening and evidence the individual has participated in a handgun training program.

Brakey’s legislation, referred to by gun rights advocates as “constitutional carry,” would not eliminate Maine’s permitting system, which also allows permit-holders to carry concealed weapons in some other states. 

Maine law already permits individuals to carry firearms openly in most public places where guns are not explicitly prohibited.

Lawmakers supporting the bill argued that current law does little to prevent criminals from carrying concealed weapons and that law-abiding gun owners should not be criminalized for hiding firearms.

“If someone plans to commit a crime with a firearm, they have little incentive to seek a permit before committing their crime,” Brakey said. “This policy only impacts those who seek to remain law-abiding citizens. By erecting barriers to the legal right to bear arms, you disarm the very people who enhance public safety and empower those intent on doing crimes.”

But opponents said the measure would make Maine a more dangerous place by encouraging untrained people to tuck guns into their waistbands or under their coats.

State Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, said she had participated in four gun-training programs — including a concealed-carry training program offered by the National Rifle Association. Haskell, who voted against the change, said required training programs assure that safety standards are being followed by those with permits.

“I think if we go with a permit-less system, we are going to lose a lot of the safety aspects of concealed carry,” Haskell said.

She said the training courses made people seriously contemplate what it meant to be in a position to take another person’s life.  

“Am I, as an individual, prepared to accept the personal, the legal and the financial responsibility of an action of that sort?” she said. “Those are tough questions. Those are barriers that are not easily overcome when you are making a decision about whether you are going to conceal a weapon for your own safety. This is not Hollywood. You don’t wound people in the knee, and they fall down, if you are in one of those difficult situations,” Haskell said. “That’s not what this is about.”

State Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, who opposed the bill, said the bill would make Maine less safe because it would allow those who currently couldn’t qualify for a concealed weapons permit to carry a hidden gun.

“This bill is a lot of things, but it’s not about guns and coats,” Gerzofsky said. “It’s about throwing the baby out with the bath water; it’s about going back in time. You are going to let people who can’t pass the background check on a concealed weapons permit just carry a gun, anyway. I don’t understand it.”

Maine’s policing community was split on the issue with Maine State Police supporting the change and the Maine Chiefs of Police opposing it.

During testimony on the bill before the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, Maj. Christopher Grotton of the Maine State Police said that in the past four years, the agency has issued more than 36,000 concealed handgun permits and has denied 251.

Supporters of Brakey’s bill said they had faith in what would largely be law-abiding citizens who would likely seek even more training than is currently required under Maine law to carry concealed weapons.

State Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, a former state police trooper and detective, stood with the Maine State Police and other rank-and-file law officers from Maine who told him the proposal was a reasonable change to state law.

“I have great confidence in our citizens to properly and appropriately use those weapons,” Burns said.

Only two Republican senators opposed the measure — state Sens. Amy Volk of Scarborough and David Woodsome of Waterboro. But Brakey also gained the support of three Senate Democrats including David Dutremble of Biddeford, James Dill of Old Town and Bill Diamond of Windham.

After the vote, Brakey said he had the support of 16 senators going into the vote and gained support of five others he did not expect to have. He noted the bill has 96 co-sponsors in the Legislature, including about 50 percent of the 151-member House of Representatives, where the bill heads next.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage has said he supports the concept of allowing law-abiding citizens to carry concealed handguns and is expected sign Brakey’s bill into law if it reaches his desk. 

If the bill passes, Maine would join Alaska, Arizona, Kansas, Vermont and Wyoming in not requiring permits for concealed handguns. New Hampshire’s Legislature has recently passed a bill allowing concealed carry without a permit that awaits action from Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan.

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