Sunday, March 11, 2007

Shedding light on concealed handguns

Christian Trejbal

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Editor's note: The database has been removed. Read the statement.

Today is the start of Sunshine Week, the annual week in which we reflect on the importance of open government and public records. To mark the occasion, I want to take you on an excursion into freedom of information land. We're going to find out who in the New River Valley has a concealed handgun permit.

I can hear the shocked indignation of gun-toters already: It's nobody's business but mine if I want to pack heat.

Au contraire. Because the government handles the permitting, it is everyone's business.

There are good reasons the records are open to public scrutiny. People might like to know if their neighbors carry. Parents might like to know if a member of the car pool has a pistol in the glove box. Employers might like to know if employees are bringing weapons to the office.

And all Virginians have a stake in checking that their government is not making mistakes, for example, by issuing permits to convicted felons. Open records allow the media or any private citizen to check.

This is not about being for or against guns. There are plenty of reasons people choose to carry weapons: fear of a violent ex-lover, concern about criminals or worry that the king of England might try to get into your house. There are plenty of reasons to question the wisdom of widespread gun ownership, too.

But that's a debate for another time.

To illustrate the open government process, I set out to acquire permit lists for the New River Valley.

I first called the local circuit court clerks charged with overseeing permitting. They were helpful, as far as they could be.

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Only Radford and Floyd County said they could produce a list. Giles County maintains an unofficial list but could not produce an official one. Montgomery and Pulaski counties had squat. The best they could do is determine if a specific individual had a permit.

None of that conflicts with the law. The records must be available but not necessarily in the format citizens want.

Fortunately, one of the clerks tipped me off to another avenue. The state police, she thought, maintained a master list.

I called Richmond and found out that yes, they did have a statewide list. Bingo!

Then another lesson of open government hit. A copy would cost more than $100.

Any Virginian can show up at a government office and request a public document. If it is something simple such as a council agenda, officials usually gladly duplicate it, maybe charging a few cents for the photocopy.

If it is something more complicated, government agencies may charge for the time and effort to prepare the records. In the case of concealed handgun permits, state police need to weed through them to cut out some personal data, which takes staff time.

A state that eagerly puts sex offender data online complete with an interactive map could easily do the same with gun permits, but it does not.

I bit the bullet and placed my order, saving the paper a few bucks by taking a Jan. 18 list officials had recently prepared for someone else.

The compact disc arrived last week. Names, addresses, issue and expiration dates.

About 2 percent of Virginians, 135,789 of us, have concealed handgun permits. In the New River Valley, 3,826 people have them, a slightly higher rate than in the rest of the state.

I immediately started checking some names. Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer, no permit. Pulaski County Supervisor Dean Pratt, packing. Radford University President Penelope Kyle, no permit. Giles County Supervisor Paul "Chappy" Baker, packing.

Some of the names proved tricky. Dana Dwayne Munsey of Pembroke has a permit. Is that Mayor Munsey? Standoffish town officials wouldn't provide a middle name or address for confirmation, and the listed phone number is disconnected.

The list sports a dismayingly large number of typos for an official registry -- four different spellings of "Christiansburg," for example.

Local celebrities generally don't carry, but at least a half dozen elected officials do. I'll leave it to readers to figure out which ones so you can avoid annoying them at meetings.

As a Sunshine Week gift, The Roanoke Times has placed the entire database, mistakes and all, online at You can search to find out if neighbors, carpool partners, elected officials or anyone else has permission to carry a gun.

Open government laws arose from distrust of government. They guarantee citizens can watch what government does in their names, including issuing gun permits.

Christian Trejbal is an editorial writer for The Roanoke Times based in the New River Valley bureau in Christiansburg.

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