Holstering the Concealed Carry Debate

The near-unanimous vote by the Maine legislature last week to temporarily ban the accessing of public information about concealed carry permit holders in Maine was ridiculous. It was also the best of a bad set of options.

Government transparency is an incredibly important issue, one that underpins many others and is essential for a healthy democracy. What should and should not be subject to Maine’s public information laws should be thoroughly debated.

There are legitimate reasons to restrict access. Access to and use of Maine’s sex offender registry was changed, for instance, after a 2006 case in which a vigilante apparently used the registry to find and kill two registered offenders before killing himself.

After the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine (the organization behind the current push to make concealed carry permits off-limits) began requesting the email addresses linked to Maine hunting and fishing licenses, the state made that data more difficult to access.

Our state should weigh the factors surrounding the concealed carry permit debate in the same manner: the people’s right to information and oversight of government vs. the individual’s right to privacy and any real threats this information could pose.

What has happened so far around the concealed carry permit issue is not that kind of debate. The seeds of that kind of reasoned discussion seem to have been consumed in a public conflagration that has produced a great deal of heat and very little light.

In part this is due to the strategy of the NRA and other anti-gun control organizations to vociferously oppose even the smallest step towards any kind of restriction on guns. At the federal level this has led to the defunding of scientific studies of gun violence. Here in Maine it meant that even a newspaper seeking to do broad-based research on concealed carry permits without identifying individuals was greeted with the full force and anger of gun owners.

It’s a strategy that works. The NRA’s membership, along with Tea Party supporters energized by their fear of perceived encroachment by the current federal administration, are willing and able to launch a full-out campaign of opposition against even the smallest slight. The tactic has served them well in a number of fights on gun safety and it all but assures that the conversation stays far away from the kind of gun control measures they’re really worried about.

This time, in Maine, the backlash was also fueled by a Governor and a Republican Party desperate for any opportunity to change the conversation.

Governor LePage and Republicans in the Legislature would love to talk about anything other than the important issues currently before them. Their budget proposal makes cuts and increases taxes that are deeply unpopular and their plan to refuse $3 billion from the federal government for health care coverage is, as this newspaper noted yesterday, unconscionable.

A recent Harvard study published in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at a number of states (including Maine) and found that expanding coverage in this way caused a decrease in mortality of 19.6 deaths per 100,000 residents. These are real people in our state who we know with a high degree of scientific certainty will live or die based on a decision by the Governor on whether or not to accept these federal funds.

If you want to see how unpopular the GOP’s position on the budget and taxes is, look no further than the NRA. Even they are (somewhat clumsily) using the tax fairness message in an attempt to push their own agenda. The TV ad they recently ran promoting their idea for more armed guards in schools featured the line “Mr. Obama demands the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes. But he’s just another elitist hypocrite when it comes to a fair share of security.”

Even the Maine House Republicans seemed to concede the point yesterday when they sent an email attacking Bangor Senator Geoff Gratwick for proposing a tax incentive for plug-in electric vehicles with the subject line “Tax Cut for the Rich.”

Regardless of the merits of Gratwick’s proposal, it’s heartwarming that there now seems to be total agreement on the fundamental concept of tax fairness.

Because the measure passed by the legislature on concealed carry permits is temporary, the debate will rise again during this legislative session, right as the House and Senate are debating the budget and other important issues. No doubt Republicans will then once again attempt to push the issue to center stage with the potential side effect of precluding meaningful debate.

The right move to de-escalate this conflict, allow this idea to be considered on its merits, and maintain the Legislature’s focus on the life-and-death issues is for Democrats to refuse to allow them to change the conversation. They should spend the time between now and then starting the fire beneath their own, widely-supported priorities on things that matter much more deeply. By the time LePage and Republicans attempt to reignite the concealed carry issue, there will be less oxygen left in the room for it to once again burn out of control.

Mike Tipping

About Mike Tipping

Mike writes about Maine politics and policy with a focus on analysis and explanation. He works at the Maine People's Alliance and Maine People's Resource Center, writes a political column for the Portland Press Herald