February 14, 2013

Republicans, public criticize Bangor paper's request for concealed weapons permit information

LePage, displaying his own permit, on Twitter declares it a safety issue

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

A Bangor newspaper came under a withering attack from gun-rights advocates, top politicians and hundreds of online readers Thursday after requesting personal information on concealed weapons permit holders from all Maine police departments.

click image to enlarge

House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty and Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, were part of a news conference about concealed weapons permits on Thursday at the State House in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

click image to enlarge

Gov. Paul LePage displays his concealed-carry permit in a photo posted to his Twitter account on Thursday. “If newspapers want to know who has concealed weapons permits, they should know I do,” LePage said.

Contributed photo

The Bangor Daily News said it was gathering the information as part of a reporting project on domestic violence and drug abuse. "The BDN has no intention to release this information publicly," said Anthony Ronzio, the newspaper's director of news and new media, in a prepared statement.

But the newspaper's request, filed under Maine's Freedom of Access Act, was attacked widely as an invasion of privacy and act of provocation linked to the Legislature's pending consideration of a bill that would make permit applications confidential.

Within hours, critics had established Facebook pages featuring images of handguns and callls for advertiser boycotts and cancellations of newspaper subscriptions.

The dispute echoes a controversy in New York in December, when the Journal News newspaper published a list and an interactive online map of all handgun permit holders in two counties. That action triggered condemnation from police and criticism by other media outlets.

Thursday's critics included Republican Gov. Paul LePage, whose office posted a tweet on the Twitter social media site, with a photo depicting LePage displaying his own concealed weapons permit.

"If newspapers would like to know who has concealed weapons permits, then they should know the Governor has his," LePage said in a statement. "I have serious concerns that (the) BDN's request will incite fear among gun owners and non-gun owners alike regarding their safety. There is no reason why these records should be public and I encourage the Legislature to act quickly to make this personal information confidential."

Top Republicans in the Legislature called a State House a news conference, where House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, said the newspaper was "politicizing" the gun issue.

Senate Minority Leader Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said having information available on gun permits is a privacy issue.

"I think most people in the state of Maine don't really like organizations out there collecting lists with their names on it," he said. Alluding to the subject of gun control, Thibodeau said, "We have a heated debate going on in this nation and it's going to be a robust debate.

"But for a major daily newspaper -- one with the reputation of the Bangor Daily News -- to engage in something like this, it's just shocking to me."

Shortly after the news conference, Maine Republican Party Chairman Richard Cebra used the guns dispute as a fundraising pitch in an email blast to supporters.

"This is a reckless overreach by a zealous press that could result in innocent, law-abiding gun owners, and all Mainers being put in danger," Cebra's email read. "We can't stand idly by as the press, liberal politicians and anti-gun special interest groups control the debate and control the message in the media. Help us fight back."

The newspaper's request comes during a legislative session with 29 proposed bills that mention the words "firearm," "gun" or "handgun" in their titles.

Among the measures is a bill sponsored by Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, to designate personal information on weapons permit applications as confidential and making it illegal to release such information to anyone who lacked authorization.

One Democrat, Assistant House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, of Skowhegan, said he supports the Wilson bill. He said he's "very uncomfortable" with permit holders' information being public, especially as he knows women who got permits because of domestic-violence situations.

But McCabe said the Republican attack on the Bangor newspaper is "a real distraction from policy issues" surrounding guns.

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