Cara Matthews, The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News
WESTCHESTER, N.Y. -- New York joined the national trend toward limiting public access to gun-license data last week when legislators adopted and the governor, Andrew Cuomo, quickly signed a law that allows permit holders to request that their identifying information remain private.
The measure, part of a broad gun-control package, follows The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News' Dec. 23 publication of an interactive map of permit holders in Westchester and Rockland, N.Y., counties. The newspaper sought to provide residents the ability to see who owns guns in their neighborhoods in the wake of the Dec. 14 shooting massacre at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school. Publishing the map prompted a backlash against the newspaper, its employees and advertisers and led to the new measure. The same has happened in other states when newspapers and other groups have sought public information on gun owners.
The Journal News also published a list of the names and hometowns of all pistol-permit holders in Westchester and Rockland counties in 2006.
Other states that have reduced access to these records in recent years include Alabama, Illinois and Oregon. An Illinois law enacted in 2011 exempted the names and other information of people who have a Firearm Owner's Identification Card or have applied for one after the Associated Press sought the names of 1.3 million people registered to own firearms there. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan issued a decision stating the records were public, but the legislation overturned the ruling.
Most states don't require a gun permit unless someone wants to carry a concealed firearm. All but one state -- Illinois -- allow concealed carry for gun owners. Alaska, Arizona and Wyoming only require concealed-carry permits in certain circumstances. New York requires registration to own a handgun.
"In recent years, I do think more and more states have made these records confidential," said Laura Cutilletta, senior staff attorney for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in San Francisco. "We think they should be open because they're public records, and just like other public records, the public has a right to have access to them."
An Oregon law enacted last year prohibits the disclosure of records or information that identifies people who are current or former holders of concealed-gun permits, or applicants for concealed carry. There are exceptions, such as responding to a news media request on whether someone convicted of a crime against a person or crime involving the use or possession of a firearm holds a concealed-handgun license.
A 2009 Alabama law prohibits the disclosure of the name, address or signature of a concealed-handgun license holder or applicant, except when a licensee is charged with a felony involving a pistol.
Thirty-five states do not provide access to the names of people with gun licenses, except to law enforcement. Those that do are Arkansas, California, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. In several cases, disclosure is limited. Vermont doesn't issue gun permits.
Under New York's new law, current and future permit holders can request to have their identifying information kept private so it would not be released in response to a request for public records. They could ask for a privacy exemption for a variety of reasons, such as being an active or retired police officer, serving on a grand jury, having an order of protection or fearing that one's life or safety would be in danger. The Journal News took down its interactive gun-permit map Friday, citing the privacy provisions of the new law.
In Connecticut, where in 1994 the legislature and governor exempted gun permits from public disclosure,
Democratic state Rep. Stephen Dargan recently submitted a bill that would reopen the records. The lawmaker said he proposed the legislation to start a conversation about what changes Connecticut should make after the Newtown murders. He received a lot of angry phone calls from Connecticut and around the country.
"When I put it in, what I was trying to point out was there is all this new technology out there and a lot of stuff is already public," he said, such as divorce proceedings, fishing licenses and property ownership.
Other media outlets around the country have been criticized for publishing gun-permit data. On March 11, 2007, the Roanoke, Va., Times published a database of concealed-handgun permits during Sunshine Week, an annual initiative to raise awareness about open government and freedom of information.
The database was removed from the newspaper's website a day later. An editor's note said people had notified the newspaper that some names on the list should not have been released.
The paper never republished the data. Molly Bell, the Roanoke Times' marketing manager, said last week the newspaper had no further comment on the matter.
The publication of the information about gun owners prompted a change in Virginia law. State police no longer can release the list of all holders of permits to carry in the state, except to law enforcement, said Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League. Local circuit courts still can release the information, which his group wants to stop, he said.
"It's nobody's business if I have a gun," he said. "I wouldn't be looking in your purse. You wouldn't be looking in my personal possessions."
The bill to close the courthouse records has died a few times in the Legislature, said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. As of Thursday, it had not been reintroduced.
In Ohio, the gun-permit list is public record for accredited media only. After the Journal News' publication of the gun map, Ohio Republican state Sen. Joseph Uecker said he plans to reintroduce legislation that would bar journalists access to the list. The information shouldn't be public, he said.
The Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence thinks the information should be available to the general public, said Toby Hoover, executive director of the group. "The media has access to the names as long as they don't write anything down, take any pictures," she said.
Wisconsin's concealed-carry gun-permit program, created in 2011, exempts the licenses from public disclosure under the state's Freedom of Information Law and limits law enforcement's ability to check whether someone has a concealed-carry permit. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council objected to the exemption provision, said Bill Lueders of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, president of the council.
Lueders said he asked the attorney general's office after a mass shooting at a Sikh temple last summer whether the person had a concealed-carry permit, but the state said it couldn't release the information.
"We just don't think it should be a blanket exemption that is never punctured. We don't know and we never will know what the state's record is with regard to concealed carry," he said.