Bad politics, bad process
There’s been a lot of concern, confusion, and rhetoric about LD 576, “Resolve, To Protect Concealed Handgun Permit Information on a Temporary Basis.” Let me take a few moments to explain why I think the way our leaders on both sides of the aisle handled it was flawed, and why I voted against it.
The bill was time stamped 15 minutes before the close of business on Friday, Feb. 15, at 4:45 p.m., and most, but not all, legislators received notice of the bill by email Friday evening around 7:30, with the understanding that the Legislature would consider it on the floor on Tuesday. Typically, a bill comes to the floor and is referred to the appropriate committee. The committee then holds hearings where any citizen who wants to have his or her voice heard can speak. After listening to the concerns of citizens, the committee holds a series of open work sessions to discuss the bill and gather additional information. It then votes on the bill, and it’s referred to the floor for the consideration of the whole Legislature. In other words, typically, a bill allows for public input, detailed examination by committee members who have a specific interest or expertise in that area, and finally debate by the full Legislature.
But the process for this bill was extremely unusual.
I studied the bill over the weekend and found it flawed. There was a provision in the bill that ran counter to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which would have rendered the bill unconstitutional and therefore unenforceable. Since Monday was a holiday and the office of the Revisor of Statutes was closed, I asked them as soon as they opened Tuesday morning to draft an amendment to correct this deficiency.
When we went into session, the bill that was presented had already been reworked at the last minute by the attorney general to address this problem and was presented on the floor. In other words, almost all legislators were seeing the revised bill for the first time.
Now, in the case of an emergency, under a suspension of the rules, a bill can be considered without going to committee if the legislators agree, which they did. The bill was debated and overwhelmingly passed, as you know. The entire process took less than three hours.
Here’s the problem:
This was not an emergency as defined within the meaning of the Constitution of Maine. This was a political emergency, plain and simple, a stunt to thwart the deliberative process.
I won’t write about the backroom negotiations and arm-twisting, but trust me when I say this was high political gamesmanship.
As you know, this bill shields the public from viewing the records of citizens who hold concealed weapons permits for 60 days. These records have been publicly available for inspection for more than 25 years, and there’s been no evidence that anyone in Maine has been harmed by their availability to the public since then. Hunting license information has been similarly publicly available, and there’s no outcry to make this information protected, and we can probably assume these license holders also possess firearms. Additionally, many Mainers possess, as is their right, firearms that are not registered in any state database. This bill would not have suspended the issuance of concealed weapons permits.
In other words, no one’s rights under the Second Amendment would have been taken away had this bill failed.
But in less than three hours, without citizen involvement, the public lost First Amendment rights. The Maine Freedom of Access Act grants the people of this state a broad right of access to public records. It also ensures the accountability of the government to the citizens of the state by requiring public access to the meetings of public bodies. In other words, FOAA is the window through which citizens can watch the workings of their government and hold it accountable. And that’s a good thing.
Now there’s a delicate balance between the public’s right to know and a citizen’s right to privacy. And any changes to this balance should be thoughtfully and deliberately considered.
My objection to this bill was not based on whether I agree concealed weapon permit holder’s names should remain public or become private. My objection was based on the fact that in response to a political emergency, not a real emergency, in less than three hours, with no public input, the Legislature limited citizens’ right of access to certain public records.
This is a dangerous precedent.
Any contemplated restriction or expansion of government transparency or of Second Amendment rights, in fact all activity of government, should be thoughtfully deliberated with the full engagement of the citizenry. These restrictions or expansions shouldn’t be written in the dark of night and rammed through the Legislature without studied consideration.
Citizens deserve to have their voice heard before the Legislature.
Brian Jones is a state legislator serving Burnham, Troy, Thorndike, Unity, Knox, Freedom, Montville, and Palermo.