Politics & Policy

Maine Proves that American Gun Politics Transcend the Red State/Blue State Divide

(File photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty)

Maine is to become the seventh state in the union to nix its firearms-permitting requirements in toto. Johannes Paulsen with the story:

Maine Governor Paul LePage has been getting into a bit of a tussle with the state legislature, vetoing 100 bills in this session, but on Wednesday, he signed a bill making the Pine Tree State the seventh state to adopt rules following Vermont-style permitless (or “Constitutional”) carry of firearms by law-abiding citizens . . . 

The bill, known as LD 652, is very simple, but will have far-reaching effects: anyone who is not otherwise prohibited by law from carrying a firearm will now be able to legally carry a firearm without the necessity of obtaining a government-issued license ahead of time.

On the face of it, this development should be a rather surprising one. As we are often reminded, Governor LePage is a “severe” conservative in a state that does not typically elect such figures, and this is precisely the sort of “severely” conservative law that New Englanders are presumed to oppose. Certainly, the odds of passage looked slim. At present, Maine’s Senate has a slim 20-15 Republican majority, while its House is run by Democrats. A majority of local police groups were against the measure, as were the lion’s share of local newspapers, the state’s Criminal Justice Committee, and the usual suspects from outside. For their part, Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action “blanketed” the state with negative ads.

Despite all of this, the measure passed on a strong bipartisan vote — and in both legislative chambers. What gives?

That the state is generally free of crime cannot have hurt. According to the Portland Press, FBI statistics reveal Maine to have been “the second-safest state in the nation in 2013,” with “only Vermont” having seen “fewer violent crimes per capita.” Nor can it be ignored that, in practice, this alteration is a minor one. Maine already allows its residents to carry a firearm openly without a permit, which meant that the debate over the new measure effectively centered around whether residents should be punished for putting on a coat — a difficult case to make in the affirmative.

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Ultimately, though, this was yet another reminder that gun politics in America do not conform to the usual regional and ideological templates. In becoming a “constitutional carry” state, Mainers join not a host of oh-so-Dixie Southerners but a surprisingly diverse set of jurisdictions that includes Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Kansas, Wyoming, and Vermont. Or, put another way, Maine becomes the second New England state in a club that boasts just one Southern state, one Southwestern state, one Midwestern state, one mountain-region state, and one . . . well one whatever-Alaska-is state.

This was yet another reminder that gun politics in America do not conform to the usual regional and ideological templates.

To try to determine a pattern by looking at this group is futile. Republican-heavy Texas, which is incorrectly imagined to be a Second Amendment–advocate’s dream locale, only last month got around to legalizing the open carrying of handguns — thereby becoming not the first but the 46th state in the union so to do. By contrast, Massachusetts-neighboring New Hampshire is being held back from full-scale Vermont-style liberalization only by its Democratic governor. Indeed, had Governor Maggie Hassan not vetoed the permit-abolition bill that was comfortably passed by both the House and Senate this year, New England would have become far and away the most “constitutional-carry”-friendly region in these United States. Bottom line: These things don’t always go as you’d imagine they would.

Leaving aside the underlying legal question of what the Second Amendment has to say about bearing arms, the question of whether “constitutional carry” is good public policy is an interesting and a complex one. In theory, I can certainly see the case in favor. If you want to carry a lethal weapon in public — as opposed to in your own home — it is not wholly unreasonable to demonstrate to your fellow citizens that you know how to use it. Since long before the Founding, Americans have drawn a clean distinction between one’s domicile and the world outside of it. In consequence, those who are laissez-faire on the “keeping” bit but regulation-happy on the “bearing” bit are on intellectually consistent ground.

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Indeed, one can argue persuasively that, even if they do nothing else at all, the instructional classes that many states require leave applicants with a necessary comprehension of their local firearm laws. Among the questions that were answered in my Connecticut class were, “What does ‘Stand Your Ground’ mean in practice?”; “Does this state have a ‘Castle Doctrine,’ and what does it say?”; “What is the difference between ‘carrying,’ ‘printing,’ and ‘brandishing’?”; and “What are the rules governing carrying in vehicles and interacting with cops?” Certainly it never hurts to familiarize the citizenry with the laws that bind it.

#related#Having said that, I am decreasingly convinced that the system actually serves to do anything much other than annoying the law-abiding. In less free jurisdictions — say, Connecticut, Illinois, or Washington D.C. — the hefty fees, long classes, involved application processes, and substantial wait times all seem to be in place primarily to discourage would-be carriers from getting their licenses at all. As such, the advantage goes to the criminal and to the corrupt. Suppose you are living in genuine fear for your life — perhaps because you live in a dangerous area; perhaps because you are being stalked or abused. What good is a lengthy permitting process to you when those that you fear are able to threaten you now? Given the number of guns in circulation in America, I’d venture that the answer is “very little.”

For years we have been told that a rise in licensed concealed-carriers would lead to an increase in lethal accidents and public shoot-outs. It hasn’t happened — anywhere. Are we to believe that this is because we require non-criminals to put themselves through the ringer before they carry in public? Probably not, no. Since they abolished their regulations, there have been no horror stories from Vermont, Wyoming, Arizona, Alaska, Arkansas, or Kansas — and there likely won’t be from Maine, either. So two cheers for LePage and co., and yah-boo to the naysayers. Let’s allow those laboratories of democracy to do their thing.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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