Saturday, April 07, 2007
State police close list of gun permits
The attorney general said the list contained sensitive information.
An editorial writer's botched attempt to highlight an open record -- the list of Virginians licensed to carry a concealed handgun -- resulted Friday in the record being closed.
Acting on the advice of Attorney General Bob McDonnell, the Virginia State Police said they will no longer release the information under the state's open records law.
The issue of hidden handguns, who gets to carry them and whether their names and addresses should be publicized hit a flash point last month when Roanoke Times editorial writer Christian Trejbal used his column to encourage readers to check up on who in their community was "packing heat."
The column carried a link to a database, obtained by the newspaper under the Freedom of Information Act and published on its Web site, that included the identities of more than 135,000 state residents licensed to carry concealed handguns.
Gun owners and their supporters were outraged, and the newspaper quickly pulled the database after receiving hundreds of complaints.
But the controversy continued. With some lawmakers pledging to introduce bills next year to make the list of concealed handgun permit holders private, Del. Dave Nutter, R-Christiansburg, decided to ask for guidance from the attorney general.
In a three-page opinion released Friday, McDonnell wrote that state police have "discretionary authority" to release the list -- but that doesn't necessarily mean they should.
McDonnell raised two concerns about making the information public: First, the list includes the names of crime victims and witnesses that should be withheld from public view for safety reasons.
A second and broader reading of the law by McDonnell is that the entire list should be off-limits to the public because the data is compiled only for use by police in their investigations.
State police have "the responsibility to refrain from releasing sensitive personal information when the interests of public safety demand discretion," McDonnell wrote.
"Further, it is my opinion that the express language [of Virginia state law] limits the use of concealed carry permit information to law enforcement personnel for investigative purposes."
Because McDonnell acknowledged that police have "discretionary authority," some observers -- including Nutter -- had speculated the opinion would give them enough wiggle room to continue releasing a redacted list.
But state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said Friday that acting on the attorney general's advice, the agency will no longer release the information, which over the past two years was the subject of 17 FOIA requests by the news media, political organizations and gun-rights groups.
Because crime victims and witnesses are not identified as such in the list of concealed handgun permit holders, there's no way for police to redact their names from the database, Geller said.
McDonnell's opinion settles the issue only for the short term; the General Assembly is expected to take up the issue next year following a study by the state's Freedom of Information Advisory Council.
"I think this opinion will serve as a foundation for future discussion," Nutter said.
Although he said it was too early to talk about specific legislation, Nutter said he could envision a solution in which citizens could still look up information on individual gun owners at their local courthouse, while the statewide list compiled by the state could be off-limits to everyone except law enforcement.
That could draw opposition from both open-record advocates such as newspapers and gun-rights groups, who also rely on the list to target potential members or citizens interested in gun-related legislation.
"There's going to be push-back from all different sides," Nutter said.
Meanwhile, First Amendment advocates voiced concerns Friday that removing information from the public domain simply because it might contain sensitive personal information could cause more confusion than clarity and affect more records than just the list of concealed handgun carriers.
"We've got to be very careful that the law is clear, and bureaucrats aren't left scratching their heads as to what is sensitive personal information and what isn't," said Frosty Landon, head of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.
"The attorney general is supportive of open government and I'm sure he will work with everybody else to get this clarified by statute, so it doesn't have to be an issue for interpretation."
In an editorial published two weeks after the controversy began, The Roanoke Times admitted its editorial department made mistakes in deciding to publish the information. Those mistakes included not discussing in greater detail the possible effect on crime victims and not having a more compelling public purpose -- beyond illustrating how the Freedom of Information Act works -- for posting the database.
Asked about Friday's decision by the state police to restrict the information, newspaper President and Publisher Debbie Meade released a written statement.
"As a media company, it always concerns us when the availability of information is restricted," Meade said. "However, we recognize and respect the rights of the Virginia State Police to exercise discretion in handling their responsibilities."