AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Acting with unusual bipartisan dispatch, the Legislature approved an emergency measure Tuesday to temporarily keep confidential the names of Maine residents who have permits to carry concealed guns. Gov. Paul LePage applauded lawmakers for their quick action and immediately signed the bill.
The measure was aimed at preventing publications from releasing personal information about gun owners, who comprise a major constituency for Democrats as well as Republicans in a rural state where hunting is common.
‘‘In all my time serving in the Legislature, I cannot recall an issue that has generated such a passionate response from my constituents,’’ Senate Republican Leader Michael Thibodeau of Winterport said after the vote.
The bill was prompted by a newspaper’s decision just a few days earlier to ask police departments across the state, through Maine’s Freedom of Access law, to provide names, addresses and ages of all of the state’s concealed-weapon permit holders. The Bangor Daily News had submitted its requests knowing that a pending bill in the Legislature would forbid such disclosures.
Facing a public furor over its requests, the newspaper quickly withdrew them and said it never planned to publish anyone’s name. To make sure personal data would be protected, GOP Gov. Paul LePage — himself a concealed-weapon permit holder — submitted emergency legislation on Friday that in effect places a moratorium until April 30 on releases of concealed weapons data.
‘‘Today’s vote gives lawmakers breathing room to have a deliberate and thorough conversation about privacy and firearms without the pressure of a media and political storm,’’ Assistant House Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said Tuesday. McCabe co-sponsored the measure with Assistant Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash.
The bill easily drew the two-thirds votes it needed to take effect immediately. GOP leaders said the vote showed that despite predictions that this would be a difficult, partisan session, Democrats and Republicans had acted in a cooperative manner.
‘‘I'm very encouraged to see that the first vote of the new term was to approve a bipartisan bill to support gun owners’ rights, introduced by a Republican governor and enacted by a Democratic Legislature,’’ said House GOP Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport.
The Maine Press Association found the legislative move to be troubling because it reacts to action that was never taken.
‘‘Any time the public’s access to information is shuttered without adequate citizen participation, the people’s faith in government cannot help but be eroded. The perceived threat here was not any actual misuse of information but merely a legal and legitimate request to access it,’’ association President Earl Brechlin said in a statement. ‘‘The fact that the legislature bypassed its own well-respected protocols for consideration of right to know legislation is extraordinarily disheartening.’’
Brechlin said he hopes for a ‘‘more reasoned’’ discussion as the bill to close concealed-weapons records permanently is deliberated.
The issue was rooted in a New York newspaper’s decision in December to publish the names of handgun permit holders and maps showing where they live in suburbs outside of New York City. That action prompted the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to recommend legislation in Maine to ensure the confidentiality of names, addresses and other personal information about concealed-weapons permit holders.
It’s difficult to pin down the number of concealed-weapons permit holders in Maine because the permits are issued town by town, and there’s no central database of permit holders, said Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety.
But state police, who issue permits in towns without police departments, issued 7,574 in 2012. That’s an increase over the roughly 5,000 it issued during each of the three years before that, McCausland said.
The confidentiality bill glided through the House and Senate with minimal discussion. An amendment was added in the Senate to clarify the bill, but an amendment to also protect the confidentiality of business, hunting and fishing license holders was rejected.