Gun-rights advocates want permit information confidential

ablythe@newsobserver.comMarch 10, 2013 

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Gun-rights advocates who have long lobbied for more concealed weapons in North Carolina are now seeking more concealed records, too.

The mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School ignited a national debate about gun controls and Second Amendment rights.

But even before that discussion took on renewed fervor, gun-rights advocates have been looking to expand the map of where they can carry concealed weapons, while pushing for tighter controls on who has access to information about their firearms.

In recent records conflicts between gun-rights advocates and media organizations, gun owners have contended that providing such information to the public can make them vulnerable to burglaries. They also argue that such details could easily be posted on the Internet in this age of global information and make them targets of other crimes and possible public scorn.

Advocates for keeping the records public argue that public access to the data ensures that permits are issued fairly and responsibly.

In North Carolina, one of a dwindling number of states where the identities of gun-permit holders are still public record, lawmakers have introduced a bill to prohibit county sheriffs from disclosing such details.

In 10 of the dozen states where such records are currently accessible, legislators have taken steps similar to those in North Carolina, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit organization in Arlington, Va.

Twenty-eight states do not make gun records public, according to the group, and 10 states have limited access.

Eddie Caldwell, legal counsel for the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, said sheriffs across the state are handling a flurry of recent requests for gun permit records in different ways.

Example of debate

A showdown in late February between the sheriff in Cherokee County, who refused to turn over gun permit records, and the editor of the Cherokee Scout, who asked for them, shows how touchy the issue can be.

Cherokee County Sheriff Keith Lovin, a Cherokee County native and sheriff there for 10 years, denied a public records request from Robert Horne, the Scout’s editor at the time.

The sheriff contended that releasing the data would put permit-holders at risk, making them more vulnerable to burglaries and identity theft.

He posted his refusal on his department’s Facebook page, and dozens of commenters rallied behind him.

Scout publisher David Brown said in a Feb. 21 letter to readers that the newspaper sought the information to determine if permits were issued fairly. There was no intention, Brown wrote, to publish the names of permit holders.

Newspaper staffers had heard, Brown wrote, that people in Cherokee “have to have the right name or know the right person in order to get one, so we wanted to take a look and see if that’s true.”

But the request put the newspaper and its staffers in the crosshairs of a heated debate and some complained about getting death threats.

The newspaper then retracted its records request, and Horne announced his plans to quit.

Both Horne and Brown declined to comment last week about the incident. They pointed to what the newspaper had already reported as what they had to say about the very public face-off.

Media vs. gun groups

Their confrontation is the third time in as many months that a newspaper has faced an angry backlash and threats of violence after seeking government data on gun permit holders.

The Journal News in White Plains, N.Y., sparked a furor in late December when it published a list and online map of all handgun permit holders in two counties. Amid threats, the newspaper stationed armed guards at its headquarters.

This past July, Grass Roots North Carolina, a gun-rights organization, launched a campaign against WRAL reporter Mark Binker and his supervisors after he posted a report on concealed-weapons permits that also included a searchable database.

The incident demonstrated the prickliness of examining gun-related issues and exposed tensions that can arise between advocates of the First Amendment and its protections of free speech and supporters of the Second Amendment, with its right to bear arms.

Paul Valone, president of Grass Roots North Carolina, said this past summer that his group had a long-standing policy that it would take economic action against any media outlet that divulged information about gun owners that group members thought should remain private.

In that incident, Valone first urged WRAL to take down the database that made it possible for a searcher looking at a particular town or city to see the streets where gun-permit holders lived without giving a name or specific address of the permit holder.

When that effort failed, Valone turned to his organization’s email alert network, urging more than 50,000 people on the list to deliver a message to Binker, his bosses and the station’s advertisers.

Lots of information about Binker culled from social media sites, including photos of the reporter’s wife and children, were posted on the Grass Roots North Carolina site with an alert: “BE POLITE, DO NOT THREATEN,” and “CALL OR EMAIL ONLY ONCE!”

Steve Hammel, a vice president and general manager of WRAL, used the opportunity at the time to opine on the First Amendment and Second Amendment, saying that both were vital and carried equal weight in this country.

He also said that the July 12 report was built on public information that anyone could obtain.

Sen. Stan Bingham, a Republican representing Davidson and Montgomery counties, introduced a bill on Jan. 31 to make that information confidential.

Rep. Mike Hager, a Republican from Rutherfordton, was one of four co-sponsors of a bill introduced in the state House to prohibit public disclosure of the information.

He said at the time that public access to such information “gives the folks who want to do us harm, or benefit from our possessions, the ability to go find out, ‘Well, I know there are some guns I can steal in this house.’ Or, on the flip side, it lets those folks know the houses that aren’t protected, which makes them even more of a target, I think.”

Having access to the records, advocates say, doesn’t mean personal information will be published.

The names of rape victims are public, but newspapers rarely print them, said Amanda Martin, general counsel for the North Carolina Press Association.

“That doesn’t mean those court cases should be litigated in courtrooms that are closed,” Martin said.

Bruce Henderson and Cameron Steele of The Charlotte Observer contributed to this report.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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