AUGUSTA –– A last-minute amendment backed by the National Rifle Association threatens to derail a bipartisan bill to overhaul the state’s concealed-weapon permit law, a move criticized as election-year sabotage.

The bill would create a central, confidential permitting system and allow Maine State Police to conduct criminal and mental health background checks. It was drafted during more than a year of meetings by interested groups including law enforcement, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and the NRA.

On Thursday, the bill received early approval in the House in an 82-54 vote mostly along party lines. But a majority of Republicans voted against the bill and instead backed a late amendment, supported by the NRA, that would defeat the purpose of the bill by allowing gun owners to carry a concealed weapon without a permit, a practice gun rights advocates refer to as “constitutional carry.”

Democrats, who control the Legislature, objected to the late introduction of the amendment, and it was not added to the bill. A few Republicans who supported the original bill in committee voted against it on the floor.

The erosion of Republican support makes it less likely that lawmakers could override a veto by Gov. Paul LePage, who has not taken a position on the bill.

Some lawmakers and others said they believe the amendment was introduced so political groups such as the NRA could portray rural Democrats who might vote against it as anti-gun rights in upcoming legislative elections.

“It was a surprise tactic and it feels like a tactic,” said Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, co-chairman of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

Rep. Ricky Long, R-Sherman, who offered the amendment while the bill was in committee, said Democrats didn’t want Republicans to score a victory during an election year.

The NRA’s legislative action arm had identified the bill, L.D. 222, as a priority, urging members to call Maine lawmakers to support the amendment. Dion said some of the NRA messages he received referred to him and other committee members as “gun grabbers.”

Long was the committee’s lone opponent in its 12-1 vote to approve the bill. Long offered another amendment that would have stripped several provisions from the bill, including one that prohibits towns without full-time police forces from issuing concealed-weapon permits.

However, the constitutional-carry provision reshaped the debate into one over gun rights.

Dion said he suspected that was the intent of the late amendment. “I felt like it was sabotage to advance an entirely different policy question, which had already been decided (last year),” he said.

The bill now moves to the Senate, where the constitutional-carry amendment could surface again.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

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