As members of both political parties, we have very different opinions on guns — how they should be regulated and how to reduce gun violence in America and Maine. As a Democrat, Ethan Strimling supports stronger gun safety regulations. As a Republican, Phil Harriman supports greater personal responsibility. Our legislative records demonstrate this, and our public comments are consistent.
However, on the issue of limiting the public’s right to know who holds a concealed weapons permit, we both agree that the Legislature should not pass pending emergency legislation limiting the public’s right to review these public documents.
Public access to public documents is an essential principle of our democracy. Any time a public body grants someone in our community the privilege to do something, everyone else in that community should be able to know that it occurred. Whether it is your neighbor wanting to add a garage to their house, or a restaurant that wants to serve liquor up the street, or a regulatory agency that wants to grant permission to open a nuclear power plant, you have the right to know.
The reasons for the importance of public access to permits are primarily threefold. First, did government follow the rules? Second, did favoritism or discrimination come into play with the granting (or denial) of the permit? Third, and perhaps most important, is your absolute right to know what is happening in your community.
Did the government follow the rules?
While both of us put different value on the importance of government in our society, we both understand that government bodies do not always get it right. Sometimes things fall through the cracks or get overlooked. In the city of Portland, a sewage permit was incorrectly administered for a local business. The millions of dollars lost were only publicly declared when a newspaper filed a freedom of access request to see the actual bills. Providing public access ensures we all get to double check.
In terms of a gun permit, there are many questions on the application that can be verified through a background check (such as past convictions, dishonorable discharge and age). However, as two people who run businesses that perform background checks on their employees, we can assure you mistakes are made. If someone enters the wrong social security number, date of birth or last-known address, the system can falter.
But it isn’t just mistakes that can put a permit in the hands of the wrong person. There are also a number of questions on the application that can’t be verified by a computer, such as whether someone is a drug abuser or has mental health issues. In these instances, you have to trust the applicant. Does anyone think a drug addict will answer that question honestly? Is it possible that someone with a mental health condition wouldn’t want to disclose the disorder to a police officer? But maybe as that person’s neighbor, family member or former friend or partner, you know something the police don’t.
Only with public access will you know to inform the authorities of a potential threat.
Playing favorites or discriminating
How often do you feel like people get favorable treatment at city hall because they are politically connected or financially powerful? Public access allows all of us, especially newspapers like the Bangor Daily News, to put the permitting process to the test of fairness.
Unfortunately, while both of us personally know that government officials are overwhelmingly fair in their decision making, there are some bad eggs.
In Maine, assuming you pass the basic background check, a sheriff or police chief gets to make a final determination about whether you get a permit based on their judgment of your “moral character.” That means the granting authority is making a subjective judgment call on whether you deserve a permit.
What if sheriffs decided in favor of someone who gave to their campaign and against someone who gave to their opponent? Or against a French applicant because they hold discriminatory views? Or maybe it turns out they only give them to women because they think women need the protection and men don’t. Indeed, many gun-rights activists across the country have complained that political views play into who gets a permit and who doesn’t.
The only way for anyone to know if this is happening is if the documents are public.
What is happening in your community?
In the end, the most important issue for ensuring access to public documents is so you know what is happening in your community and how your tax dollars are being spent. As we said earlier, if someone wants a permit to open a restaurant, you have the right to know. If someone wants a permit to hold a parade in front of your house, you have a right to know. And if your neighbor, ex-boyfriend or day-care worker wants to take out a concealed weapons permit, you also have the right to know. Our communities are stronger because of this right.
Currently the Legislature is preparing to pass a resolution to put a four-month moratorium on everyone’s access to the public records of concealed weapons permit holders without even holding a public hearing to understand the kinds of implications we laid out above. We think this would be a grave mistake. Our system of checks and balances demands that all of us in the public review what our government does.
If the BDN had followed through with its request to obtain the public records of concealed weapons permit holders, and it found that as few as 1 percent of people who received a permit should not have, that is 300 people carrying guns in Maine who shouldn’t. Or maybe the paper would have found that more people who have these permits are later committing crimes than was previously understood.
But most likely, if the BDN had followed through with its request, it would have found that 99 percent of concealed weapons permit holders are law-abiding residents who understand and respect the responsibility that comes with carrying a concealed weapon.
Discovering any of the above makes us all safer. Preventing the discovery of any of the above makes us less safe.
We can only hope that everyone in Augusta — Democrats and Republicans alike — takes a deep breath and thinks before they make the unwarranted step of limiting our right to know.