A bill that seeks to overturn a 96-year-old Maine requirement that people must have a permit to carry a concealed weapon failed to win initial support in the Maine House by one vote.
The bill, L.D. 660, which has been a priority of the National Rifle Association, was defeated Tuesday in an initial vote, 74 to 73. The House will get a second chance to vote on the bill after the Senate votes, likely on Wednesday.
Supporters said the permit requirement is an infringement of Second Amendment rights and that removing the requirement would have no effect on public safety.
Opponents said that allowing people to carry concealed guns without passing a background check or getting gun safety training would create more fear in society and make it more difficult for police to do their jobs.
While losing by one vote is frustrating, the close margin is encouraging because it shows that many lawmakers could support an idea that initially “sounds crazy” but makes a common sense once the faces are examined, said the bill’s sponsor, Aaron Libby, R-Waterboro.
“It’s bittersweet,” he said. “But we are going in the right direction.”
Outside the House Chambers after the vote, Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, who opposed the bill, glanced at the chamber on the other size of the capitol dome.
“It all depends on what happens there,” he said. “It’s up to the Senate now.”
The vote in the Senate will be close, perhaps a one-vote margin as well, said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, which supported the bill.
“It could go either way,” he said.
Since 2003, four states — Alaska, Arizona, Wyoming and Vermont — have passed similar measures, known as constitutional carry. A bill recently passed in Arkansas will become law in July.
Maine law allows people to carry a gun without a permit as long as the gun remains visible. To carry a weapon hidden from view, however, they need to apply for a concealed-weapon permit from local or state authorities.
Applicants must show they have “good moral character” and answer more than 30 questions, most of which relate to their adult and juvenile criminal history and whether they have a mental disorder or a drug habit.
Supporters of L.D. 660 say it’s “logically inconsistent” that people in Maine may wear a gun openly, such as in a holster on their hip, but must obtain a permit to carry the weapon on the inside of a jacket.
Rep. Allen Nadeau, R-Fort Kent, recalled a story of how he was riding his all-terrain vehicle on his farm and wanted to put his gun in his pocket to protect it from the rain. He said his wife told him not to do so because he would be breaking the law.
“It was my own farm and my own property,” he said, adding that the law makes him feel like a criminal.
Rep. Timothy Marks, D-Pittston, who retired from the Maine State Police in 2011 after 25 years, was the only Democrat on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee to support the bill. He said the system is broken. Applicants requesting a permit must wait 150 to 180 days for approval.
Because there are more than 200 police and government agencies authorized to approve a permit, police aren’t able to determine with any certainty whether a specific individual has a permit or not.
Nobody from a law enforcement agency or a prosecutor’s spoke against the bill during a public hearing.
“That’s sign that they don’t care,” Marks said. “Nobody showed up.”
Rep. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth, said that allowing anyone to walk around town with a gun in his or her pocket would create more anxiety.
“I believe this would create a climate of fear much greater than we would want to live with,” she said.
Sixteen Democrats voted for the bill, mostly those representing rural districts, and all the Republicans except for one, Rep. Amy Volk of Scarborough.
Volk said many of constituents in the Portland suburb told her that they want tougher gun laws in Maine, not more lenient laws.
So far this session, while several states have past stricter gun laws in response to the in Newtown, Conn, the Maine Legislature has yet to pass a single piece of gun control legislation.
Dion, who chairs the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said the current system for issuing concealed permits is flawed, but it would be better to fix the system than get rid of it altogether. Doing so would put citizens and police at risk, he said.