The Bangor Daily News has asked Maine police departments for the names, addresses and dates of birth of all concealed-weapon permit holders, a move that is angering gun-rights advocates and Republicans in the State House – including Gov. Paul LePage.
Gov. Paul LePage displays his concealed-carry permit in a photo posted to his Twitter account on the afternoon of Thursday, February 14, 2013. “If newspapers want to know who has concealed weapons permits,” tweeted the Governor, “they should know I do.”
“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 Thursday. “We intend to use this information, along with other information we are gathering, to analyze possible correlations and trends relevant to our reporting projects.”
However, David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, condemned the newspaper’s decision as a move that will “enrage and upset” permit holders.
If they aren’t going to publish the data, “I would question exactly what they want the information for,” Trahan said. He questioned whether the request was a “provocative move” taken as the Legislature prepares to consider a bill that would make permit applications confidential.
LePage released a statement and made a Twitter post from the governor’s office, with a photo depicting him holding his own concealed weapons permit up for the camera.
7:43 PM – 14 Feb 13
“If newspapers would like to know who has concealed weapons permits, then they should know the Governor has his,” LePage said in the 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.”
A bill sponsored by Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta would designate personal information on weapons permit applications as confidential and make it illegal to release such information to anyone who lacked authorization.
House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, said at a press conference that 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.
The press conference ended just after a Lewiston Sun Journal reporter asked about Republicans and Democrats gathering voter information. Thibodeau finished the thought in an interview afterward.
“There’s a big, big difference,” he 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 press 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 dispute echoes a controversy in New York in December, when a newspaper, the Journal News, published a list and an interactive online map of all handgun permit holders in two counties. That action triggered condemnation from police and was also criticized by numerous other media outlets.
In his statement, Ronzio said the BDN finds that newspaper’s treatment has long planned to request the records as part of its reporting on domestic violence and drug abuse, but the introduction of the emergency bill in the Legislature moved up its timeline.
Ronzio posted an editor’s note Thursday afternoon in response to criticism, saying the BDN found the New York newspaper’s treatment of concealed-weapon permit holder “irresponsible.”
But letters Wednesday that Ronzio said were sent to the Maine Department of Public Safety and municipal police departments, which keep permit data, the newspaper says it “does not intend to publish wholesale identifying information included in this list.”
Despite those intentions, the request upset gun rights advocates and legislators.
Thibodeau and Assistant Senate Majority Leader Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said the newspaper’s statement was incoherent.
“I actually believe at this juncture that the Bangor Daily doesn’t intend to release this information,” he said. “But I still question: Are they trying to create a news story or are they reporting the news?
“It doesn’t give me any comfort because the fact of the matter is they will be in possession of it,” said Damien Pickel, police chief in Milo, a town in Piscataquis County. “They say they don’t have an intention, but it doesn’t say they won’t.”
Trahan said he’ll be sending an email blast Thursday to mobilize gun-rights supporters in his group and other groups to contact the newspaper about its decision.
“I don’t think it can be good for business,” Trahan said.
The New York newspaper removed its online map of permit holders in January, after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a package of gun-control legislation that restricted access to permit data. Maine is one of 14 states that allows access to names of concealed-weapon permit holders, according to a January USA Today article.
Officials in Waterville and Fort Kent told the Portland Press Herald Thursday that their departments have received the newspaper’s request.
In Fort Kent, Police Chief Kenneth Michaud said he received the BDN’s request Wednesday and will comply. But he said he had reservations.
“The only thing that bothers me is I give a guy’s name and if they put that public, now everyone’s going to know there’s a gun in that house,” Michaud said.
Joseph Massey, Waterville’s chief, said he’s passed the request on to a city attorney, but he doesn’t think the information should be public.
“There’s always the possibility that someone who wants to steal guns gets a hold of this it and wait until someone’s not home and burglarize the home,” Massey said.
Pickel, the Milo chief lamented the request in a Facebook post – while saying he’d comply.
“Personally, I am opposed to releasing ANY information regarding concealed carry permit holders,” he wrote. “I find it will create a (sic) unsafe environment not only for those who are legally permitted to have a concealed weapon, but also those who do not.”
Responses to his post were visceral: many attacked the BDN for liberal bias and said they’d cancel their subscriptions. One said the newspaper has “a death wish,” while another said it thought its readers are “stupid and uninformed.”
The BDN’s Facebook page is also under fire with almost exclusively negative comments about the move. One asked, “Has this sick liberal rag finally gone completely Communist?” Others suggested boycotts of the paper and posted information on certain employees.
The Journal News published their map days the December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. where gunman Adam Lanza killed 26 students. The newspaper’s office is approximately 50 miles from the school.
“I think they reacted impulsively because they were so close to the Newtown shooting,” said Michael Socolow, a journalism professor at the University of Maine in Orono. “I think if they had time to consider the decision, they might have made a different decision.”
Still, he said the ethical question over the request should focus on the newspaper’s presentation, not the fact that the information is public.
Now, Socolow said, scrutiny is being fanned by political flames in the face of fierce divides on gun control.
“If the BDN had put in this request five years ago, it would not have catalyzed such a controversy,” he said. “The toxic political environment is inflaming passion all around the media.”