Improve permit system, don’t scrap it

By James Willis and Robert Schwartz

The state of Maine has a long tradition of responsible use of firearms associated with hunting and outdoor sports. Maine permits its residents – so long as they are not otherwise prohibited from possessing a firearm – to carry one on their persons in most public places so long as it is visible to others. For good reasons, most citizens choose not to engage in this form of exhibitionism even though it is perfectly legal.

Maine also permits its citizens to carry a firearm that is concealed, so long as they first obtain a permit from either the state police or one of the municipalities authorized to issue concealed weapons permits. There is ample evidence that the permit system serves its intended purpose of denying certain persons the privilege of carrying a hidden weapon if they have pending criminal charges, criminal convictions, protective orders against them or have otherwise demonstrated that they are not sufficiently responsible to walk around with a gun under their clothing.

A bill pending at the Maine legislature, LD 652, An Act To Authorize the Carrying of Concealed Handguns without a Permit, would eliminate the need to obtain a permit in order to carry a concealed weapon. Proponents refer to this proposal as supporting “constitutional carry.”

We submit that Maine already allows constitutional carry by permitting its residents to carry a weapon in the open.

Proponents of LD 652 have asked the question “If everyone can carry a weapon in the open, why not concealed? What’s the difference?”

If there wasn’t a difference, we would ask, “Why the need for a bill?”

In fact, there is a big difference.

People hide things for a reason. Often, that reason is that they are up to no good. And this is what most concerns law enforcement officials. It is why the Maine Chiefs of Police Association opposes LD 652.

We recently conducted a survey of a number of our members who are authorized to issue concealed weapons permits, asking them why they have denied the issuance of permits or suspended permits they had previously issued over the last three years. The departments we surveyed ranged from York in the south to Presque Isle in the north and from Wilton in the west to Bucksport in the east.

The most frequent reason involved serious driving offenses, including operating while under the influence. The second most frequent reason was for charges or convictions involving domestic violence or the issuance of a protective order by a court. Next were other criminal convictions and drug offenses other than possession, i.e., trafficking or drug-related violent offenses.

Proponents of LD 652 claim that only law-abiding citizens bother to apply for a concealed weapons permit, yet our survey proves that is not the case. Does the permit system guarantee that no irresponsible persons will carry a hidden gun? Unfortunately, no law is perfect. Does the permit system screen out some of the people who should not be carrying a hidden gun? Clearly it does.

The permit system has its flaws. The required training to obtain a permit is not consistent, and it does not in many cases require sufficient evidence of the proper use of a firearm. The background checks are costly and time-consuming if done properly, and they don’t necessarily screen out all risky persons, for example, those with a mental illness that might make them prone to commit violent acts.

There’s a saying in politics: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The opposite also is true. So, let’s fix the permit system by requiring adequate training and a database that allows local law enforcement to know whether a person who claims to have a permit from another jurisdiction actually has one. There are others bills before the Legislature designed to fix the concealed weapons permit system. That’s where our legislators’ attention should be focused.

We urge our lawmakers in Augusta to oppose LD 652.

James Willis is chief of the Mount Desert and Bar Harbor Police departments and president of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association. Robert Schwartz is executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association and a retired chief of the South Portland Police Department.

Other signatories, members of the association’s board, include Chief Michael Field, Bath Police Department; Chief Edward Tolan, Falmouth Police Department; Chief Doug Bracy, York Police Department; Chief Neil Williams, Cape Elizabeth Police Department; Chief Sean Geagan, Bucksport Police Department.

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