WASHINGTON — The Senate passed a little-noticed proposal Thursday that would penalize states and communities that release “private information” about gun owners, including the type of data on concealed-handgun permits that’s at the center of a debate in the Maine Legislature.

The 67-30 vote approving the plan to protect information about gun owners came a day after the Senate rejected a series of gun control measures sought by the White House and advocates for stronger gun laws in response to December’s school shootings in Connecticut.

Maine’s Republican Sen. Susan Collins supported the amendment while independent Sen. Angus King opposed it.

The amendment is largely symbolic, as evidenced by the scant attention it got on Capitol Hill on Thursday. It is tied to a larger gun bill that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., pulled from the Senate floor Thursday after gun control advocates’ stinging defeat.

Reid vowed Thursday to bring back the gun control package, presumably after securing more support for expanded background checks for private gun sales.

But the fact that the gun owners’ privacy measure passed with 67 votes — compared with 54 votes Wednesday in support of expanded background checks — shows the challenge for gun control advocates as they seek support among lawmakers from rural, pro-gun states.

The privacy proposal, sponsored by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, would withhold 5 percent of funding through the federal Community Operations Policing Services program from states or localities that publicly release data on individuals who own or carry guns.

“When government officials release gun ownership information, it puts many lives at risk,” Barrasso said, echoing concerns that such information can lead to gun thefts from homes. “This includes the lives of lawful gun owners, the lives of law enforcement and the lives of victims of domestic violence.”

The debate over public access to data on gun permit holders exploded earlier this year when a New York newspaper published a list and map of concealed-weapons permit holders. The issue erupted in Maine after the Bangor Daily News requested similar information from across the state, only to withdraw the request amid a firestorm.

From the mid-1990s to 2010, police departments in Maine received more than $54 million from Community Operations Policing Services, much of it paying for additional police officers, school resource officers and new law enforcement technology.

Last year, four law enforcement agencies in Maine — the Cumberland, Yarmouth and Madison police departments and the York County Sheriff’s Office — received $675,000 through the program to hire additional officers.

While some of Wednesday’s gun control proposals were debated for hours in the Senate — after weeks of public debate — Barrasso’s amendment was given just two minutes of discussion on the Senate floor Thursday.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, noted that the proposal had not even had a congressional hearing. He dismissed it as an example of Washington passing “Big Brother” legislation after two minutes of debate without any information on its potential impact on states.

“It’s a feel-good amendment,” said Leahy. “It will hurt our states, but most importantly, it will hurt law enforcement.”

With its fate tied to the stalled gun control bill, Barrasso’s amendment is essentially in limbo until a broader compromise emerges or supporters opt to break it out as a standalone bill. Even if it becomes law, it may be moot in Maine.

State lawmakers are considering legislation to shield information on concealed-handgun permit holders in the state. The bill won a legislative committee’s endorsement this month and is awaiting action in the Legislature.

King and Susan Collins supported the background check compromise and were dismayed with its failure Wednesday. Collins and King were also co-sponsors — with Collins the lead Republican author — of an unsuccessful proposal to strengthen federal laws against gun trafficking and “straw purchasers.”

King said immediately after the voting Wednesday night that he had “yet to hear or dream up any rational reason” for opposing the background checks expansion. On Thursday, he said reviving the bill is still a possibility.

King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said he is willing to continue working on a compromise.

“Absolutely, if we can find a way to get (passage), as long as we don’t compromise the concept to the point where it doesn’t mean anything,” King said. “The only thing worse than not doing anything is doing something that’s meaningless and pretending that it is doing something.”

Collins, who has faced heavy lobbying from both sides in the gun debate, also remained disappointed Thursday with the failure of the background check compromise, which she viewed as a “common-sense” proposal that would not infringe on the Second Amendment.

“This has been a strange debate, and unfortunately, it has been characterized by misrepresentations,” Collins said.

Asked whether she believes the gun bills are dead for the year, Collins said: “I really don’t know. That really depends on what Harry Reid decides and whether he holds the bill or not.”

Collins and King voted against a proposed ban on assault weapons, but split their votes on a proposed ban on large-capacity ammunition magazines, with King supporting the ban and Collins opposing it.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:
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