The decision by state Democratic lawmakers to meet privately with an official from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives last week may not have violated any rules but sent the wrong message at an already tense time.

For 90 minutes last Wednesday, reportedly at the request of the U.S. Department of Justice, Democrats in the Maine Legislature attended a closed-door “information session” with James P. Vann, deputy director for enforcement programs and services at the ATF.

Their Republican colleagues, offered the same type of closed-door briefing, said no to the offer.

“We all agree that transparency is of the utmost importance, and we have no desire to meet with the ATF behind closed doors,” Rep. Jennifer Poirier, R-Skowhegan, told the Press Herald. “We’re totally against any private meeting.”

According to open meetings laws, three or more members of a legislative committee cannot meet in private. Private or closed party caucuses, meanwhile, are common enough and engaged in by both parties.

At the time of writing, questions as to exactly why the United States Department of Justice made the request for a private briefing remained unanswered. Vann was originally to give a public briefing. Speaking to Fox 22 on Thursday, Republican Sen. Eric Brakey called it “weird.”

What is abundantly clear is that the process of negotiating reform of state gun laws is extremely delicate and demands exaggerated attention to the highest standards of cooperation, conciliation and compromise; the more transparency, the better. The day before the first committee votes on gun safety proposals was simply no time for either party to open themselves to charges of “meeting in secret.”

Even if one feels Republican legislators’ refusal to meet privately with Vann (and subsequent indignation about the Democrats’ meeting) was cynical, the agreement to meet privately by members of one party, while members of the other decline the same meeting, creates an unproductive imbalance – at best. This should have been avoided.

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