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Why Gun Permit Records Maybe Should Be Public

January 4, 2013
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Last week Rep. Pat McDonough proposed doing for Maryland what something like 30 other states have already done: make secret the state’s list of who is permitted to carry a concealed handgun.

I was vacationing in my home state of Connecticut at the time, so I missed all the hubbub about the proposal and the newspaper whose handy map of concealed carry permittees inspired it.

This I regret, because I have direct experience in this matter. In 1987, I may have unwittingly set in motion the cascade of public information restrictions that have now become common sense to many—even some in the media. I did it by asking for the list of concealed carry permit holders in my hometown of Fairfield, neighboring Westport and Norwalk, and Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Only Bridgeport, whose chief of police had already told me that his officers try to thwart ordinary citizens from obtaining permits because “it’s their right to have them, but we don’t like them to know that,” refused to hand over the list.

“It would provide a shopping list for criminals,” the city’s lawyer argued at a hearing of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, which ruled that the information I requested was public and should be released.

The city appealed and lost. So they appealed to the state Supreme Court where, in 1992, five years after I’d asked for the list, the city lost again.

I’d moved on by then. I never got the list and I never wrote the story. But I think it’s important for people to know just what the hell I thought I was doing back then in asking for such—if today’s standards are to be honored—sensitive information:

I was trying to help ordinary city residents get their gun permits.

My best friend, Victor, who like me was in his young 20s and like me had no criminal history, had tried repeatedly to obtain a concealed carry permit. He owned a .357 magnum revolver and a Walther PPK semi-automatic. He and I had fired both at the nearby Blue Trail range.

I wasn’t interested in getting a permit for myself—or a gun, for that matter. But I thought it odd that a citizen should have his paperwork repeatedly “lost,” and when the chief revealed his attitude I thought it was noteworthy.

My editor at the time, Jim Motovalli, and I also suspected that there were well-connected people in Bridgeport and elsewhere who obtained their permits without fuss. In Bridgeport, we speculated that a few known criminals would have them as well.

Back then there was no way we could have printed the whole list, and the internet had not yet been invented, as far as we knew. Our intention, then, was to comb the lists for names we knew, and check it against court records.

The situation in Bridgeport in 1987 was not unlike the situation in Maryland, 2013. In our state one still must give a “good and substantial reason” for wanting to pack heat; “good and substantial” being somewhat malleable terms of art, legally-speaking. It is suspected that the reasons proffered by politically influential individuals  needn’t be as good nor as substantial as those claimed by less lofty citizens. But all this may change soon, on account of a U.S. Supreme Court.

Or it may not.

Connecticut was in 1987, and is today, a “shall issue” state. The Bridgeport police chief’s informal obstructionism then thwarted the plain intent of the state law (and, some believe, the U.S. Constitution). But there was no way for the broad mass of citizens to know about this or to think about it, because the gun permit lists were unexamined by outsiders.

And that’s how they have stayed ever since.

In 1994, in the dark of night, a Connecticut state legislator—it is unknown who—attached an amendment to some state appropriations bill. The amendment passed without debate. It passed without most legislators knowing it was even there. The amendment did in Connecticut then what Mr. McDonough seeks to do in Maryland now: closed the gun permit lists to reporters.

It also closed the list to everyone else, according to a 2006 story about the case in the (Bridgeport) Connecticut Post:

The way the law stands, even local law enforcement officials cannot access the state’s list of licensed gun permit holders. “For an officer to get this information, there has to be a valid investigation in progress,” said Sgt. J. Paul Vance, the State Police spokesman. “An officer can’t get this information just because they’re curious about someone.”

All of which may have been inevitable. Bills to do the same have rained down on state legislatures each year for two decades. They are inspired by four ideas that I think need correction—or, at least, debate. They are:

  1. This is a list of legal gun owners whose privacy is being violated by its publication. It is no such thing. Very many people have handguns in their homes but no permit to carry them in public. Many others—myself included—own so-called “long guns” which require no permit to keep or carry. The idea that a list of people with concealed-carry permits is similar to a list of firearms owners—a “shopping list for criminals,” as my long-ago legal adversary put it—is absurd on its face. Has anyone ever presented any evidence that any gun thief—or any criminal, anywhere, ever—used a list of carry permit holders to choose a burglary victim?
  2. Journalists are anti-gun; the media is anti-gun; all such snooping into permit lists is self-evidently for the purpose of harassing gun owners. Well, no. Though the reactionary provocateur Michelle Malkin asserts it and no less a scholar than Charlton Heston himself berated the fourth estate on this point, [Here’s a podcast of his seminal 1997 speech to the D.C. Press Club]  it is simply not so that every reporter is anti-firearms or that every media outlet is trying to discourage legal gun ownership. In my case, in 1987, the plan was to expose the corruption of a system that would grant permits to some but discourage un-politically-connected citizens such as my friend Victor from obtaining the permit to which they were legally entitled. The whole idea was to see if the permitting process was fair. And we knew that it wasn’t.
  3. Registration leads inevitably to confiscation. The NRA folks really seem to think that, but they base their conjecture on the experiences of other countries, like Australia and Britain.  These are the same people who, most often, consider American Exceptionalism to be a settled fact. I’ve not yet seen anyone square that circle but, as in all matters of faith, it is unlikely that anyone ever will.
  4. The publication of a person’s home address is a prima facie invasion of their privacy, subjecting them to unwarranted scrutiny if not imminent physical attack. This paranoia has grown up mightily during the past two decades, as well-publicized stalking incidents led to reforms of FOI laws in many states. In 1989 the actress Rebecca Schaeffer (“My Sister Sam”) was killed by a stalker who allegedly obtained her home address from a P.I. who got it from the California Department of Motor Vehicles by filling out a simple form.   The incident led to a wholesale shutdown of that previously routine reporter’s resource. That the deranged killer got his gun semi-legally by asking his brother to buy it for him was not much discussed.

Any of the above ideas may be debatable. However, they are not undisputed facts self-evidently supporting new restrictions on information gathering. It may come as a surprise to some readers—and some lawmakers—for example, that one’s home address is not—cannot—be a state secret. Does anyone remember the White Pages? Not so long ago, almost everyone’s home address and home phone number was listed there for anyone to see (you had to pay a private company to unlist it). It was a terrible time, I’ll say—people calling up each another willy-nilly, stalking each other left and right, shooting out their enemies’ porch lights under cover of darkness. . . .

Not long before that there existed something called a “City Directory,”  in which every business and person in town was listed, with their home address as well as now highly-classified stuff like their employer and occupation—sometimes even physical handicaps.

As a matter of course, newspapers published the addresses of crime victims—and their perpetrators—and no one thought anything of it. Certainly, no one retaliated by publishing reporters’ home addresses–because these were already widely known.

Of course, back then, privacy was taken somewhat more seriously than it has been lately. Facebook did not yet exist,  so there was not such unfettered access to drunken, semi-naked photos of almost everyone under the age of 26. (And so students of elite colleges like Johns Hopkins did not require an internet-trail-cleaning kit so that employers would not reject their applications out of hand—the way they obviously do for those from less glorious educational precincts.)

All of which to say: however one defines one’s own idea about “privacy,” government-controlled information ought to be subject to outside scrutiny. Gun enthusiasts, with their well-rehearsed aversion to state power, should understand this.