By Richard Locker, Memphis Commercial Appeal
March 18, 2009

NASHVILLE — Bills to close public records on Tennessee handgun-carry permits inched closer to approval Wednesday after the bills’ supporters tried but failed to close statistical data on the permits, too.

Rep. Eddie Bass, D-Pulaski, House sponsor of the confidentiality bill, said he saw no benefit to the public release of statistical reports because it “could be used against” the permit program.

An annual report by the state Department of Safety to the state legislature shows 624 permits were revoked or suspended in 2007 due to felony convictions, arrests and court orders of protection (usually sought by victims of domestic abuse). The report also shows that 605 permit applications were denied in 2007, while 48,991 were issued, pushing the total of carry permits to about 220,000 statewide.

The bill that would close all public access to information identifying gun-carry licensees, including those charged with or convicted of gun crimes, advanced in House and Senate committees Wednesday, but with differences that must be resolved before it can become law.

The new House version won 6-4 approval in the Judiciary Committee after members added an amendment requiring statistical reports on the permit program to remain public. The bill would have closed the reports, too, even though they contain no personal information.

Instead, the reports include raw data on the numbers of licensees whose carry permits are revoked and suspended by age, gender, county of residence and grounds for suspension and revocation. They also include total numbers of permits issued and denied.

Through years of efforts to close the records — which have been public since the state took over the issuance of gun-carry permits in 1997, advocates of closing them have argued that personally identifying information should be private.

But there has also been an undercurrent against public release of even non-identifying statistical data, which Bass raised publicly Wednesday, because the data might be construed as “negative” to the program.

Occasional media reports have revealed the state Department of Safety failed for nearly a year to conduct all the required criminal background checks on applicants, allowing convicted and accused felons to obtain permits.

“This legislation is designed to stop any negative publicity about this program,” said Frank Gibson of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, which opposes the bill. “You don’t invade a person’s privacy with the release of statistics.”

Gibson had asked the committee to amend the bill to ban only publication of the entire permit database, as The Commercial Appeal has posted on its Web site, but keep the records open.

The committee delayed for another week a bill that would allow licensees to carry guns into local parks.

A Senate Judiciary subcommittee appointed to review gun bills recommended approval of the Senate version of the confidentiality bill sponsored by Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville. It now goes to the full Senate committee.

Gun bills up for House votes today:

HB0390: Allows loaded shotguns and rifles to be transported in vehicles.

HB70: Allows people to use deadly force if they are threatened with bodily harm in situations like attempted carjackings.

HB46: Prohibits the state from collecting information about weapons used in handgun training courses by handgun-carry permit holders

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