AUGUSTA — While the Legislature moved Tuesday to shield concealed-weapon permit information from the public, Maine’s law enforcement community says better access to the information could help police get guns out of the hands of criminals.

Law enforcement agencies now have no reliable, real-time way to check on whether people who commit crimes have concealed-weapon permits for which they no longer qualify.

As the Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage moved Tuesday to keep the information private, another bill before the Legislature would create a central database of permit-holders to give law enforcement agencies easier access to the information.

“It’s not uncommon for us to find disqualifying events” when people ask to renew their permits, said Lt. Scott Ireland, head of the Maine State Police’s licensing division, which has about 25,000 active permits out to people in more than 300 rural municipalities and out-of-state. “There’s always room for improvement in the system, and there’s room for improvement here.”

A LePage spokesman said she could not comment on the database bill.

LePage led the effort to keep concealed weapons information private; but he also spoke about domestic violence during his State of the State speech earlier this month, saying “we need to do something about getting guns away from abusers.”

Permit holders must answer questions about criminal history and go through background and mental-health checks to get initial permits and to get them renewed every four years. Permits can be revoked by the issuing authority for reasons ranging from a charge or conviction to a violation of state law’s “good moral character” clause, which could include a history of abuse.

However, police may not know if a person who commits a crime already has a concealed-weapon permit in Maine that should be revoked. That happens for a host of reasons, chief of which is that a central list — or even a reliable number — of permit holders doesn’t exist, police said.

Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, has said there might be about 45,000 permits in Maine. Ireland has estimated there might be 33,000.

They don’t know because Ireland’s office keeps one tally of state-issued permits and larger municipalities keep track separately of the permits they give out. 

Vern Malloch, Portland’s assistant police chief, said that often, rural departments that keep permit records don’t have 24-hour staffing, so if his officers run into someone in Portland who has a concealed weapon or commits a crime, they might not be able to reach the issuing town or city to check on a pemit.

L.D. 189, sponsored by Rep. Timothy Marks, D-Pittston, would establish a statewide database of permit-holders so law enforcement, courts and correctional officers could track permits. Ireland, Schwartz and Malloch all endorsed the idea.

“I think the process could be improved,” said William Harwood, a Portland attorney who founded Mainers Against Handgun Violence. “There should be a process by which by enforcement routinely check the criminal background check database against the concealed-weapons database to see if there’s a permit that needs to be revoked.”

Ireland has said his four-person office staff is struggling with more than a three-month backlog of permit applications because of increased demand. The office is technically in violation of state law, which says permits for most Mainers should be issued within 30 days.

Along with the lack of a database, officials say, there is inconsistent questioning between police departments.

For example, if police allege that a crime is committed with a handgun, Schwartz said he would expect officers to ask whether the suspect has a permit. Ireland, on the other hand, said that would not be part of a normal line of questioning.

Malloch said if his department comes across someone concealing a weapon, officers ask whether the person has a permit to do so. If an offense doesn’t involve a gun, however, police might not ask about a concealed-weapon permit and may never find out.

“If they’re concealing a weapon, we’re always going to ask if they have a permit,” Malloch said. “In a lot of instances, we’d leave it up to them to tell us if they have a permit.”

LePage said during his State of the State speech he wants to prioritize getting guns away from domestic-violence abusers. Maine has been hit hard by domestic-violence murders: In 2012, The Associated Press reported it was at the root of 21 of the state’s 48 homicides in 2010 and 2011.

A 2010 article in the Journal of Women’s Health said shootings are the most common way women are killed by intimate partners in America. In 2005, it said, more than 57 percent of women killed by boyfriends, spouse or ex-spouses were killed by firearms. That statistic is low in practice, because it doesn’t count ex-boyfriends.

Federal law and many state laws prohibit gun possession by those who are convicted of a misdemeanor for domestic violence or are subject to a restraining order sought by a past or present intimate partner, according to a 2012 white paper from Johns Hopkins University. Maine has such a law, but “enforcement of these laws appears to be spotty,” the white paper reads.

Malloch offered a hypothetical example to explain why: A man who lives in Lewiston is cited for domestic-violence assault after hitting his girlfriend in the Old Port in Portland. He doesn’t have a gun or a concealed-weapon permit on him, and eventually he is allowed to go home. He shouldn’t have a gun, Malloch said, but Portland police probably wouldn’t call Lewiston to ask whether he has a permit.

Ireland has said the percentage of permit applicants who are denied or revoked each year is in the single digits. Malloch said Portland revoked one permit in 2012 after the department opened up a criminal investigation against a man who was charged with some crimes and hadn’t yet been charged with others. He said the crimes weren’t gun-related.

Even gun-rights advocates agree that a database would help. 

David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, which has lobbied against public disclosure of formerly public gun-permit data in recent days, said he’d support the concept, as long as it doesn’t burden state police. 

In a statement, House Republicans spokesman David Sorensen said his caucus believes the information “should remain accessible to law enforcement and the courts.”

Michael Shepherd — 620-7015
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