AUGUSTA — A bill that would allow Mainers to carry a concealed handgun without a permit moved a step closer to becoming law Monday when it cleared a key vote in the House of Representatives.

The 83-62 vote increases the likelihood that Maine will become only the seventh state that allows a person to carry a concealed handgun without a permit. The legislation has the backing of Republicans and Democrats, including 15 Democrats in the House. The bill also has 96 co-sponsors, more than half the members of the Legislature, and the blessing of some members of the Republican and Democratic leadership.

In the Senate, the bill passed Friday on a 23-12 vote. More votes are required in the Senate before the bill moves forward, for procedural reasons and because the House adopted two amendments to the bill. One would require anyone under age 21 to get a permit to carry a concealed weapon. The other would require a person carrying a concealed gun to tell a police officer if they’re in possession of a weapon during a traffic stop.

Gov. Paul LePage is expected to sign the bill if the Legislature passes it.

Tom Franklin, president of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence, predicted that passage will lead to more street violence and deaths. The group works to prevent gun violence through gun safety and education.

“I believe this bill reflects the current state of dysfunction in Augusta,” Franklin said Monday night during a telephone interview. “It does not reflect the wishes of Maine people.”

He said his group is deeply concerned about allowing people to carry handguns without a permit.

“Maine is becoming a state in which we are increasingly becoming subject to more risks in favor of protecting personal liberties,” he said. “In my view, it has gone too far.”

TWO FACTORS CREDITED FOR PASSAGE

David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said his organization, which represents about 10,000 Maine sportsmen and gun owners, supports the legislation.

He said two factors contributed to its apparent passage – the support of the Maine State Police, and out-of-state interest groups trying to influence legislators.

“Maine people don’t like it when money and power coming from out of state tries to influence their decision-making,” said Trahan, who served in the Legislature for 12 years. “That was a factor.”

Trahan noted that background checks will still be required of anyone who buys a gun at a store. He said most gun owners in Maine are responsible, law-abiding citizens.

“It’s angry rhetoric. And it’s just not true,” Trahan said of Franklin’s remarks.

The bill would not eliminate the permit system, but would make it voluntary. State police now handle permit applications for about 300 Maine towns, but many local police departments or other municipal officials process the permit applications on their own. The process includes a background check for a criminal record, similar to the check conducted by the federal government for felony convictions when someone buys a gun from a retailer. But police have broad discretion and can deny a permit for relatively minor offenses, such as reckless conduct or operating under the influence.

The heavily lobbied measure has pitted gun rights activists against groups that want regulation and oversight of people who carry firearms. It also has divided the law enforcement community because the permit system requires background checks for felons.

Rep. Karen Gerrish, R-Lebanon, said she had received more than 1,500 emails from both gun rights activists and gun control advocates.

Gerrish argued that the permit system was deeply flawed, citing testimony by the state police, which supported the measure at a public hearing.

“Bad people will always do bad things,” she said. “The permit system does not stop bad people from carrying guns.”

Rep. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth, said the bill will facilitate an atmosphere of fear.

“This will lead to a darkening of our society that we should not encourage in any way,” Cooper said. “It might not lead to a wave of violence, I’m not predicting that … but there will be a wave of paranoia.”

The Maine Chiefs of Police has argued that removing the permitting requirement to carry hidden guns would end the background checks for felons.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said last week that the bill is a threat to public safety. Sauschuck, who is currently Portland’s acting city manager, said the concealed weapons permitting process, which includes training and background checks for criminal history and mental health problems, is a common-sense approach to carrying a firearm.

Bill supporters argue that the mandatory permitting system creates barriers for law-abiding citizens who want to exercise their constitutional right to carry a gun. Opponents have countered that the Second Amendment allows U.S. citizens to bear arms, but it doesn’t protect the right to “hide a gun.”

Critics also have argued that the bill, L.D. 652, effectively eliminates the screening offered by background checks. That’s especially important, they say, in the case of someone who buys a gun in a private sale and therefore could carry a concealed weapon without a background check or waiting period.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, has countered that permits do not guarantee safety or ensure that gun carriers are trained.

SOME PROTECTION OVER NONE

Rep. Lori Fowle, D-Vassalboro and co-chairwoman of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said the permit system isn’t perfect, but it provides protection. She cited statistics from the state police showing that 10 of the people who were denied permits last year were convicted felons.

Fowle said the absence of background checks and making the permit system optional will increase the odds that felons or mentally ill people will be able to carry a concealed handgun.

“I want you to think about that when you push that button,” Fowle said before lawmakers entered their votes.

LePage expressed support for eliminating the permit requirement in a veto message on a 2014 bill that would have strengthened the system.

“Eventually, I believe we will see legislation that will allow people to carry concealed weapons without going through the bureaucratic maze of applying for a permit,” LePage said at the time.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.