Legislature weighs closing gun records

On March 26, 2008, in News 2008, by Mark Norris

Bill threatens jail for publishing permit data

By RACHEL STULTS and JENNIFER BROOKS • Staff Writers • Tennessean.com
March 26, 2008

The records of everyone licensed to carry a handgun in Tennessee would be sealed from public view by a proposal working its way through the legislature.

The bill, sponsored by state Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, and state Rep. Eddie Bass, D-Prospect, would make Tennessee the 28th state in the nation to make secret its list of residents who have applied for or received a handgun-carry or concealed-carry permit. Several other states have similar bills in the works.

Tennessee takes its privacy plans a step further — threatening journalists with jail time if they publish information from the permit records, as The Tennessean did on its Web site last May.

For some outraged gun owners, jail’s too light a sentence for that sort of violation of privacy.

“If we was in Iran, I’d say, ‘Cut your fingers off for publishing it.’ It’s nobody’s business whether I own a gun or whether I own a sterling silver knife set worth $10,000,” said Buford Tune, a handgun owner and the owner of the Academy of Personal Protection and Security in Nashville.

“Why don’t you get names of everybody who don’t have a gun and put their name in the paper and see what happens?” he said. “You’re going to have all the crooks say, ‘Oh, that’s an easy hit.’ ”

For advocates of open government, it’s the latest in a depressing national trend.

“This is information about who is being licensed to have a special permit in your state, through an agency paid for with your taxpayer dollars,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of The Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press, based in Virginia. “Why wouldn’t you want to know that?”

But many gun owners and advocates worry about the motives of the people prying into their personal information.

‘It’s not an easy issue’

Many see no reason that the list of registered carriers — and in Tennessee, they are handgun-carry permits, not concealed-carry permits — should be open to the public. They worry they could be targeted by gun thieves. They wonder how they could surprise a criminal with a handgun if the criminal could look them up on a database and come prepared.

For Susan Lewis, who fled an abusive relationship nine years ago, the idea that her name and address could show up on a published list of permit holders is terrifying.

Lewis, who has a new life with fiance Bobby Loftis, said she supports the public’s right to know but would like to see the open records law tweaked so it restricts how much information could be published — an idea Norris said he is seriously considering.

“I totally believe in the Freedom of Information Act and freedom of the press, but there’s got to be a limitation to it,” said Loftis, who is also a handgun owner. “It’s just taking too much of a chance of somebody using it as a shopping list.”

Others, however, worry that the bill is one more example of Tennessee walling off information that used to be open to the public.

When the state passed its open records law in 1974, there were almost no exceptions to the rule that everything possessed by a government agency should be open and available for public scrutiny.

Today, exceptions to the open records statute take up page after page in Tennessee’s law books. The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government estimates that new exceptions are added at the rate of eight a year.

“Our form of government is based on openness,” said the coalition’s director, Frank Gibson. “They keep sealing all these records. If this legislation passes, there will be no way to know if someone in your neighborhood has a special permit (to carry a handgun) or not.”

That troubles even the bill’s sponsor. Norris plans to ask the Senate to delay a vote on his bill this afternoon while he tries to find a way to protect the public’s privacy and still preserve the public’s right to know.

WTFV-Channel 5 in Nashville used the state’s handgun registry database to show that convicted felons had been able to obtain handgun-carry permits in Tennessee, in spite of their records. It’s the sort of watchdog journalism Norris said he would hate to see the state lose.

“It’s not an easy issue. There are some pretty fundamental issues involved all the way around,” he said.

And he admits that the criminal penalties in the bill “may be rather harsh.”

Violation would be felony

The bill would make it a Class E felony — punishable by one to six years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000 — to publish information about anyone who has applied for or received a handgun-carry permit in Tennessee.

The felony provisions in the bill could put the Tennessee legislature on a collision course with 70 years of constitutional law.

“Courts, including the Supreme Court, have been unbending in their belief that prior restraint of the press is unconstitutional,” said Tennessean Editor Mark Silverman. “In fact, it is fundamental to an open society to have a free press that cannot be told what it must or must not publish in advance. Lose that, and we lose a fundamental piece of our democracy.”

Dalglish agreed: “You can’t criminalize the publication of truthful information. Just can’t be done. It’s completely illegal, (and) I’m sure there are any number of thoughtful lawyers and judges who will be happy to point this out to them.”

The legislature, in a way, would be “cutting their own throat” by passing the bill, said John Harris, executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, which has been pushing gun privacy legislation since 1994.

He thinks there are people or groups that would need to access the list for legitimate purposes — politicians looking for campaign backing, for example.

But the media have abused the registry, he said, and have previously published the information in an effort to embarrass gun owners.

“If you’re concerned about the wrong people getting them, why are you publishing a shopping list for thieves?” Harris said. “It’s not like publishing who was arrested last week or who was caught in a prostitution sting. These are law-abiding citizens doing something the law says they have a right to do.”

All or nothing?

A few hours after uploading it, The Tennessean removed the database from its Web site because of reader concerns.

Domestic violence victims would probably already know if their abusers are armed, or at least want to be prepared in case they are, Susan Lewis said. But confirming that the victim is a registered carrier would only put him or her at risk, she said.

“If they feel like that person is still stalking them, being able to jump on that computer and find that list would tell them, ‘Oh, she’s armed herself, and this is where she lives so I need to be more prepared,’ ” Lewis said.

But for the law to protect gun owners, Harris said, it would have to be all or nothing.

“If you publish the name and the county, it’s not a difficult leap for someone to look in the White Pages,” Harris said. “I think the information should be protected from abuse, and maybe the only way to do that is to make it confidential and exclude everybody, which is unfortunate.”

Extending more privacy to gun owners seems unfair when victims of crime must be public record, said Verna Wyatt, executive director of victims rights group You Have The Power.

“You might have the right to carry a weapon, but why is it your right to conceal it and conceal that information?” Wyatt said. “When you think about a domestic violence victim often in hiding from an abuser, it becomes very difficult for her to get her personal information concealed. Why not help victims with that, instead of concealing what’s in my mind a clearly public record?”

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