A Bangor newspaper came under a withering attack from gun-rights advocates, top politicians and hundreds of online readers Thursday after requesting personal information on concealed weapons permit holders from all Maine police departments.

The Bangor Daily News said it was gathering the information as part of a reporting project on domestic violence and drug abuse. “The BDN has no intention to release this information publicly,” said Anthony Ronzio, the newspaper’s director of news and new media, in a prepared statement.

But the newspaper’s request, filed under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, was attacked widely as an invasion of privacy and act of provocation linked to the Legislature’s pending consideration of a bill that would make permit applications confidential.

Within hours, critics had established Facebook pages featuring images of handguns and callls for advertiser boycotts and cancellations of newspaper subscriptions.

The dispute echoes a controversy in New York in December, when the Journal News newspaper published a list and an interactive online map of all handgun permit holders in two counties. That action triggered condemnation from police and criticism by other media outlets.

Thursday’s critics included Republican Gov. Paul LePage, whose office posted a tweet on the Twitter social media site, with a photo depicting LePage displaying his own concealed weapons permit.

“If newspapers would like to know who has concealed weapons permits, then they should know the Governor has his,” LePage said in a statement. “I have serious concerns that (the) BDN’s request will incite fear among gun owners and non-gun owners alike regarding their safety. There is no reason why these records should be public and I encourage the Legislature to act quickly to make this personal information confidential.”

Top Republicans in the Legislature called a State House a news conference, where House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, said the newspaper was “politicizing” the gun issue.

Senate Minority Leader Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said having information available on gun permits is a privacy issue.

“I think most people in the state of Maine don’t really like organizations out there collecting lists with their names on it,” he said. Alluding to the subject of gun control, Thibodeau said, “We have a heated debate going on in this nation and it’s going to be a robust debate.

“But for a major daily newspaper — one with the reputation of the Bangor Daily News — to engage in something like this, it’s just shocking to me.”

Shortly after the news conference, Maine Republican Party Chairman Richard Cebra used the guns dispute as a fundraising pitch in an email blast to supporters.

“This is a reckless overreach by a zealous press that could result in innocent, law-abiding gun owners, and all Mainers being put in danger,” Cebra’s email read. “We can’t stand idly by as the press, liberal politicians and anti-gun special interest groups control the debate and control the message in the media. Help us fight back.”

The newspaper’s request comes during a legislative session with 29 proposed bills that mention the words “firearm,” “gun” or “handgun” in their titles.

Among the measures is a bill sponsored by Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, to designate personal information on weapons permit applications as confidential and making it illegal to release such information to anyone who lacked authorization.

One Democrat, Assistant House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, of Skowhegan, said he supports the Wilson bill. He said he’s “very uncomfortable” with permit holders’ information being public, especially as he knows women who got permits because of domestic-violence situations.

But McCabe said the Republican attack on the Bangor newspaper is “a real distraction from policy issues” surrounding guns.

“It makes it harder for us to do the work we need to do,” McCabe said.

Ronzio, the Bangor paper’s editor, declined to comment on the controversy. In his prepared statement, he said the newspaper had long planned to request the weapons permit records as part of its news reporting, but the introduction of Wilson’s bill accelerated the request.

In a separate editor’s note posted on the paper’s website Thursday afternoon, Ronzio referred to the New York newspaper’s treatment of concealed-weapon permits.

“We believe the wholesale publication of permit holder information, as was done recently by a newspaper in New York, is irresponsible,” he wrote.

Thibodeau and another Republican legislator, Assistant Senate Majority Leader Roger Katz, of Augusta, said the newspaper’s statement was incoherent.

“I actually believe at this juncture that the Bangor Daily doesn’t intend to release this information,” Thibodeau said. “But I still question: Are they trying to create a news story or are they reporting the news?

David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, condemned the newspaper’s decision as a move that will “enrage and upset” permit holders.

If they aren’t going to publish the data, “I would question exactly what they want the information for,” Trahan said. He questioned whether the request was a “provocative move” taken as the Legislature prepares to consider the bill to protect the identities of permit holders.

Swept into the online debate were two of the Bangor newspaper’s own reporters, who discussed the incident in comments that were posted on their personal Facebook pages but later taken down.

Jen Lynds, who covers Aroostook County, and Mario Moretto, who covers Hancock County, had differing opinions on their paper’s handling of the issue.

Lynds wrote that it is “clear by Ronzio’s statement that there was confusion over the newspaper’s intent, so it was not handled properly in the first place. And now the fallout comes down on the reporters. And I am sick of feeling that.”

Moretto wrote that newspaper employees should not “bow to accusations of politicizing an issue when we’ve done nothing of the sort.”

After that, Lynds wrote that she and another reporter “have been getting heat fiercely” from law enforcement in their coverage areas.

“We have worked hard, as I think we all have, to build relationships with police and the public,” Lynds wrote. “And the police are now angry, at least the ones I have talked to.”

Damien Pickel, police chief in Milo, in Piscataquis County, said he took no comfort in the newspaper’s assurances that it would not publish personal information about permit holders. “They say they don’t have an intention, but it doesn’t say they won’t,” he said.

In Fort Kent, police Chief Kenneth Michaud said he received the paper’s request Wednesday and will comply, but he said he had reservations.

“The only thing that bothers me is I give a guy’s name and if they put that public, now everyone’s going to know there’s a gun in that house,” Michaud said.

Joseph Massey, Waterville’s chief, said he’s passed the request on to a city attorney, but he doesn’t think the information should be public.

“There’s always the possibility that someone who wants to steal guns gets a hold of this and wait until someone’s not home and burglarize the home,” Massey said.

Trahan, leader of the sportsman’s group, said he’ll be sending an email blast Thursday to mobilize gun-rights supporters in the organization and other groups to contact the newspaper about its decision.

“I don’t think it can be good for business,” Trahan said.

The New York newspaper removed its online map of permit holders in January, after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a package of gun-control legislation that restricted access to permit data. Maine is one of 14 states that allows access to names of concealed-weapon permit holders, according to a January USA Today article.

Pickel, the Milo chief, lamented the request in a Facebook post — while saying he’d comply.

“Personally, I am opposed to releasing ANY information regarding concealed carry permit holders,” he wrote. “I find it will create a (sic) unsafe environment not only for those who are legally permitted to have a concealed weapon, but also those who do not.”

Responses to his post were visceral. Many attacked the Bangor newspaper for liberal bias and said they’d cancel their subscriptions. One said the newspaper has “a death wish,” while another said it thought its readers are “stupid and uninformed.”

The paper’s Facebook page is also under fire with almost exclusively negative comments about the move. One asked, “Has this sick liberal rag finally gone completely Communist?” Others suggested boycotts of the paper and posted information on certain employees.

At one point in the afternoon, 17 negative comments were posted within 22 minutes on that page, and in slightly more than three hours of existence, an anti-Bangor Daily News Facebook page, “Boycott Bangor Daily News Don’t Tread On Us,” got more than 200 “likes.”

The Journal News in New York published its map days after the December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. where gunman Adam Lanza killed 26 students. The newspaper’s office is about 50 miles from the school.

“I think they reacted impulsively because they were so close to the Newtown shooting,” said Michael Socolow, a journalism professor at the University of Maine in Orono. “I think if they had time to consider the decision, they might have made a different decision.”

Still, he said the ethical question about the request should focus on the newspaper’s presentation, not the fact that the information is public.

Now, Socolow said, scrutiny is being fanned by political flames in the face of fierce divides on gun control.

“If the BDN had put in this request five years ago, it would not have catalyzed such a controversy,” he said. “The toxic political environment is inflaming passion all around the media.”

Under state law, a concealed-weapons permit must include the name, address, signature and physical description of the holder, along with the dates the permit was issued and will expire. The permit also may include a photograph of the holder. To obtain a permit, applicants must answer 32 questions mostly relating to any criminal background, then consent to a background check and release of psychiatric records. Permits are good for four years.

There is no central repository of permits, as some Maine communities issue their own and others rely on the Maine State Police. As a result, the total number issued is unclear. State police have estimated the figure could be in the range of 30,000.

Michael Shepherd — 620-7015
mshepherd@pressherald.com