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Sunday November 17, 2019
Posted: Aug 18, 2015

Concealed weapons debate in Maine based on hunches, not data

College Connection

Two of the many bills debated in the Maine State Legislature this past year have far-reaching ethical and political implications.

I want to address the recently passed bill allowing concealed weapons to be carried in Maine without a permit. In a later post, I’ll discuss Sen. Roger Katz’s right-to-die bill.

The benefit of being on a college campus while the Legislature is in session is that there are lots of opportunities to hear from a variety of disciplines how we might think about these bills and develop a more comprehensive understanding of the legislative debate.

Many people consider concealed carry to be a basic right, supported by the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Asserting a right without discussion is simple, but is not necessarily convincing. Opponents can ask how far a particular right can be taken. So, the right to free speech in the First Amendment allows many forms of speech, but not incitement of riots, direct threats or child pornography.

What is contained in the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms depends on one’s interpretation of the Constitution. A strict originalist may view only muzzle-loaded weapons using flintlock firing and single shots as covered under this amendment. Few would consider all armaments (up to and including nuclear weapons) to be covered. And the specific way that this amendment applies to concealed weapons is still an open question, at least according to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in a 5-4 decision in 2010 ruled that the Second Amendment provides a fundamental right to bear arms that cannot be violated by state and local governments.

Asserting rights may be a winning debate strategy, but it tends to cut off discussion on an issue. If one is skeptical about rights involved, or about the meaning and breadth of various rights, concealed carry can also be analyzed using a cost-benefit analysis. This year’s debate generated plenty of discussion of the alleged benefits and harms of allowing concealed carry without a permit. Supporters of the bill argued that a more liberal concealed carry law would reduce crime because it would force people to think twice before committing crime. They would worry that any witnesses might have concealed firearms. Those opposed to the bill argued that allowing more concealed firearms would increase the possibility for the misguided or accidental use of such weapons, increasing danger to the public.

A problem is that most of the evidence cited is anecdotal. This is partly because in 1996 Congress passed a law that restricted federal funding for research on firearms safety. And for the past two decades, this restriction has curtailed social science research about whether and how firearms legislation affects public safety.

So, Maine had to conduct this debate largely based upon hunches. As a result, the public debate on this issue was so contradictory and unsatisfactory. The assertion of basic rights and rhetoric unsupported by evidence are problematic methods of public debate. The people of Maine deserve better.


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