States act to shield gun holders

On April 25, 2008, in News 2008, by Mark Norris
April 25, 2008

Gun control advocates say there’s no evidence to show that open records put people who carry concealed weapons in greater danger.

South Carolina last week became the latest in a growing number of states to make the names of people who have a license to carry a concealed weapon a state secret.

Five other states might not be far behind in a battle that pits a public policy of open government against the right of people to keep their gun ownership records private.

Bills that would make concealed gun permit records confidential have been introduced in eight other states this year — Alabama, Louisiana, Missouri, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia — according to Janna Goodwin of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Tennessee bill was defeated, in a House subcommittee vote earlier this month. West Virginia’s bill was tabled, and Virginia’s legislative session ended before a bill could be considered, Goodwin said. Action is pending in the five other states, she said.

Concealed-weapon records always have been confidential in many states, said Colin Weaver, a spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Prior to South Carolina’s action, the Brady Campaign counted 26 states where the records are confidential.

The trend of states closing records intensified last year, partly in response to media outlets in Virginia, Florida and elsewhere posting those records online, said South Carolina state Rep. Michael Pitts, a Republican. “People think this one is absolutely a Second Amendment issue, but it’s not,” said Pitts, a former police officer who introduced his state’s bill to close gun permit records. “It’s as much an issue of where does the sunshine on government stop and the protection on individual privacy begin.”

The degree to which these records are open or closed varies from state to state, according to an analysis done by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. For example, in Ohio, records are confidential but journalists may request to view the name, county of residence and date of birth of each person to whom the sheriff has issued a license to carry a concealed handgun.

Gene Policinski, vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, a non-partisan center at Vanderbilt University that studies free-expression issues, said he sees the move to close concealed-weapons permit records as part of a larger trend of government citing safety and security reasons for closing a variety of records.

“In general, the public seems very well served when public records are public,” he said. “And I think the rationale for closing these records has more to do with political considerations regarding gun regulation than it does a necessity for secrecy or the public good of keeping public records public.”

National Rifle Association spokesman Ashley Varner said that states have realized that “if they don’t protect the permit holders’ privacy, they can’t count on the newspapers to do so.” ¶

G. Edward White, a professor of law and history at the University of Virginia, said that states that close their gun permit records could have a tough time proving the constitutionality of the action. “We’re not talking about national security or the security of the state,” he said. “What we’re talking about is whether the disclosure of this information might somehow increase the risk that people with the weapons would be endangered, or make it more difficult for them to use them to protect themselves. I think that’s a pretty weak argument.”

Tennessee state Sen. Mark Norris, a Republican who introduced a bill to close his state’s concealed-gun permits records, said the main concern is keeping addresses of permit holders private — particularly of women who have left abusive relationships and don’t want the perpetrator to know where they live.

Ron McIsaac, a concealed-weapons permit holder in South Carolina who uses a wheelchair, said he doesn’t like the idea of his address being made public, partly because he thinks burglars might target his home to steal guns. And he feels he needs a gun for protection because of his handicap.

“All anybody has to do now is come by and knock me off the chair, and I’m like a turtle who’s been tossed over on his back,” he said. “So it’s important for me to have the ability to defend myself in a situation like that.”

Weaver, of the Brady Campaign, said there’s no evidence to show that open records put people who carry concealed weapons in greater danger.

“We feel that the greater danger is putting concealed-weapons permits in the hands of convicted felons and people that should not be allowed to have them,” he said.

Mark Bilicki, a firearms instructor in Greenville, S.C., said he can understand why some people might not want their name and address published, and he tells his students not to put an NRA sticker on their vehicle because it’s an advertisement for burglars.

He said that for many people, though, letting everyone know they may be carrying a gun is a point in their favor for safety.

“Quite frankly, I want everybody to know I own a gun,” he said.

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