Sunday, March 18, 2007
Should gun data lists be muzzled?
First Amendment rights collided with Second Amendment rights in the recent brouhaha.
It didn't take long for Sunshine Week to turn stormy.
At 9:15 last Sunday morning, just a few hours after The Roanoke Times was dropped on doorsteps and shoved into paper boxes across the region, Scot Shippee fired the first shot in what would become the newspaper's biggest Internet controversy.
In an online discussion forum, Shippee blasted the paper for posting on its Web site a database that included the names and addresses of everyone in Virginia licensed to carry a concealed handgun.
Shippee wrote that if the newspaper was so committed to public information, it would only be fair for him to publicly list the home address of editorial writer Christian Trejbal. A column by Trejbal that day had urged readers to celebrate Sunshine Week -- a national recognition of the public's right to know -- by using the database to see who in their community was "packing heat."
In the furor that followed, irate readers swamped the newspaper with hundreds of calls and e-mails. And Trejbal became the recipient of threats and a suspicious package that drew a state police bomb squad to his Christiansburg home.
There was no bomb, only fallout.
Even though The Roanoke Times hastily removed the database from its Web site, questions remain: Should people be allowed to know who among them is secretly armed? Or did identifying those who carry concealed handguns invade their privacy and make them targets for criminals?
And will this fundamental conflict between advocates of the First and Second amendments be resolved by the General Assembly's restricting public access to gun permit information when it takes up the issue next year?
The issue of hidden guns and open records is handled differently from state to state.
Virginia is one of 17 states that treats information about concealed-handgun permit holders as a public matter, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
In another 18 states, the information is closed from public view. The remaining states have no laws or court decisions that clearly address the question one way or the other.
Because laws vary from state to state, direct comparisons are hard to draw from a database of record availability compiled by the committee.
In some states the information is open only to police, in one state it's available just to the media, in others the names of permit holders are public but their addresses are not, and in others permit holders can petition the court to keep their information private.
In Vermont and Alaska, the issue is moot because people don't need a permit to carry a concealed handgun. In Wisconsin and Illinois, individuals are not allowed to pack a hidden holster, permit or not.
One thing does seem clear: A growing number of states -- including Florida, Ohio and South Dakota -- have passed laws in recent years to remove or restrict concealed-weapon information from the public domain.
Virginia could be headed in that direction, as the blowup over Trejbal's column has some state lawmakers talking about introducing bills at next year's General Assembly.
"The trend has been moving in the direction of protecting people's privacy rights," said Alan Gottlieb of Second Amendment Foundation, a gun rights organization based in Washington state.
The catalyst behind that trend is "abusive behavior by the media," said Marion Hammer, executive director of Unified Sportsmen of Florida. Hammer's group pushed for the change in Florida's law last year after an Orlando television station became the latest media outlet to run a database of concealed handgun permit holders.
"They made it sound like exercising a constitutional right was something wrong, and they held [gun owners] up to ridicule," Hammer said.
While Second Amendment supporters argue that publicizing the names of gun owners violates their privacy and makes them possible targets of crime, some First Amendment advocates say there's a compelling public interest in that information.
"I can hear the shocked indignation of gun-toters already: It's nobody's business but mine if I want to pack heat," Trejbal wrote in his column on Sunshine Week, which included a link to the now-defunct database of permit holders.
"Au contraire. Because the government handles the permitting, it is everyone's business."
Some media experts -- journalism ethics professor Edward Wasserman of Washington and Lee University among them -- have questioned whether a newspaper should publish the information just because it has it.
But Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, sided with Trejbal. "I think public records are public records" and people should have the right to see them, she said.
"I don't know what it is about the gun people. They seem to think they should have all these rights, but they don't want to recognize the rights of the rest of us to know who they are."
Among the hundreds of comments about Trejbal's column that followed Shippee's initial posting to roanoke.com's message board, there was this one from a woman identified only as "Not Wanted to be found":
"I've moved twice to get away from a violent ex. Now I have to move again. I really appreciate you publishing my address. Gee, thanks."
It was a common theme that ran through the opposition: Publicizing the names and addresses of 135,000 concealed-gun carriers was more than just a privacy issue; it also enabled criminals to track down their victims and find the best homes to burglarize for guns.
Yet no one interviewed for this story -- including a Second Amendment scholar, a state police spokeswoman, the National Rifle Association and three other gun rights groups -- could point to a single incident in which that actually ever happened.
The odds seem unlikely to Randell Beck, executive editor of The Argus Leader in South Dakota, which maintains a database of that state's concealed handgun permit holders on its Web site.
"I find it very difficult to argue that [publication] in any way may put you on somebody's burglary list," Beck said. "In fact the opposite argument applies: If I'm a burglar looking for a place to steal stuff, and if I know Joe Blow has a handgun, I would be less likely to burglarize his house, knowing that he might shoot me."
Andria Harper, director of the First Amendment Foundation, made the same argument when her group fought unsuccessfully against the move to close gun records in Florida.
"That's the definition of a dumb criminal," Harper said. "To stalk someone they know has a concealed weapon."
Even though NRA spokeswoman Ashley Varner could not cite an incident in which a criminal used concealed-carry data to commit a crime, she said there were "real-life situations" in which potential victims were forced to move after being outed.
Said Varner: "I would hope that we don't have to wait for someone to actually be burglarized or raped for someone to say: 'Oh, maybe this is a bad idea.' "
Not many people noticed, at least not at first, when The Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg quietly put a database of local concealed handgun permit holders on its Web site in November 2002.
But once the Virginia Citizens Defense League found out, the guns rights group quickly mobilized its membership, encouraging them to bombard the newspaper with angry e-mails and phone calls. The organization also dug up the home addresses and other information about the paper's key managers and made it public.
"We were flooded" with opposition, said Brian Baer, editor of Fredericksburg.com. The newspaper quickly took the database down and never put it back up.
But The Free Lance-Star still publishes information from newly issued concealed handgun permits, which it gathers from local courthouses, on a regular basis.
Local news editor Dick Hammerstrom said they might get a complaint every month or so.
The same holds true in Danville, where the Register & Bee runs the information in its weekly publication for nonsubscribers.
"It hasn't been an issue here at all," news editor Darren Sweeney said.
That could soon change, as the controversy in Roanoke has refocused the VCDL's attention on the issue. "They're going to get a pounding on this," the group's president, Philip Van Cleave, said of any newspaper that dares publish the information.
VCDL was especially incensed that The Roanoke Times chose to list the exact address of gun owners. The Fredericksburg paper listed just the street names, and in South Dakota only the city or county in which a gun owner lives is made public.
While the Argus Leader received about 20 complaints, editor Beck said he would have expected much more flak had the exact addresses been listed.
Another reason why outrage peaked in Roanoke might be a line in Trejbal's column in which he noted that Virginia does not take the same pains to list gun owners online as it does for convicted sex offenders.
"Concealed handgun permit holders and sex offenders????," wrote one poster, identified only as "vashooter."
"Your [sic] a class act, way to abuse the first amendment while trying to strip us of the second."
Before a Virginia resident obtains court permission to carry a concealed handgun, he or she must pass a criminal background check and a firearm training course. That should debunk the implication that concealed handgun carriers are an inherent risk to society and need to be monitored, said Nelson Lund, a George Mason University law professor who specializes in gun issues.
"Every time anyone has looked into this, they have found extraordinarily low levels of misuse of firearms by concealed-carry holders," Lund said.
Almost as fast as the concealed handgun database went up on roanoke.com, it was gone.
Roanoke Times president and publisher Debbie Meade explained Monday that it was pulled because of concerns that state police, who provided the data at the newspaper's request, might have identified crime victims on the list in violation of a state law.
That turned out not to be the case. But the newspaper was in no rush to re-post the data, explaining that it was only intended as a temporary feature to supplement the column on Sunshine Week.
Many questions remained unanswered by week's end, including three that were submitted in writing to Meade:
Did the newspaper make any mistakes in publishing the database? If yes, what were those mistakes? If no, did the newspaper bow to pressure in deciding not to re-post the data?
"We're still responding to the developments from the past several days and have not had time to evaluate all of this yet," Meade responded Friday afternoon in a written statement. "But I can assure you that those discussions will take place."