(Updated 1/19 7:25 a.m.)
Following a New York newspaper's controversial decision to publish the names and address of local gun owners, state legislators are moving to make such information private, even as a Sunlight Foundation analysis shows that in a majority of states, the data are already off the public record.
Forty states plus the District of Columbia do not make data available about who owns a gun or has received a state permit to carry a gun, according to Sunlight's examination of state gun laws. There are ten states that do make data available to the public. Our information is based on a compilation of gun laws by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and on interviews with officials and activists in the states.
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With the gun debate raging in state legislatures and the nation's capital following last month's school massacre that left 20 children and six adults dead in Newtown, Conn., it appears that more states may join the list keeping such information private even as they consider tough gun control measures. For example, the gun control bill passed by the New York legislature this week and signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo contains language that would allow virtually all gun permit holders to keep their information private. Up until this week, New York was one of the few states that made names and addresses of gun permit holders publicly available.
Officials in other states are following suit:
- In North Carolina, Gaston County Commissioner Tracy Philbeck has launched an effort to exempt gun permits from the state's public records. He has introduced a resolution calling for gun permit records to be made private which he expects the Gaston County commission to approve Thursday, setting the stage for potential action in the state legislature where Philbeck says some members already are expressing support. "I believe in transparency; I believe in freedom of the press," said Philbeck. But the commissioner, a gun owner himself, believes the news media should not be allowed to obtain personal information on people who have legally obtained gun permits and "spew it on the Internet." Doing so, he argued, could endanger people with good reasons to both have a gun and to keep a low profile, such as retired law enforcement officials and victims of domestic violence. "I am trying to protect the citizens of this county and this state," Philbeck said.
- In California, a member of the state Assembly, Dan Logue, has already said he is introducing a bill to make the addresses and phone numbers of gun owners private, while preserving the release of names.
In the wake of the Newtown shootings, the Journal News, which serves other New York bedroom communities, published a map of registered gun owners in its circulation area. The paper took the information down from its website Friday in response to the legislature's decision to protect gun owners from having personal information disclosed. An avalanche of criticism ensued — from gun rights groups as well as from some other members of the media. Gun rights activists charged that the map violated the privacy of gun owners and cast them as criminals simply for having a permit to carry a gun. Some also said it left gun owners vulnerable to harassment and break ins. The newspaper received threats and hired armed guards to protect employees.
More criticism came from New York Times media writer David Carr as well as the Times' former executive editor, Bill Keller. They argued that the Journal News went too far in revealing private information, and that it could have published map data by zip code without identifying actual owners. Prominent Internet journalist Jeff Jarvis, defended publication of the data however. He argued that there is a public interest in the information. Examples he cited ranged from parents who might want to know if there is a gun in a home where their children play to journalists or scholars who want to see if there is a correlation between gun ownership and crime rates.
This is not the first time that data related to guns have become controversial. Since 1986, federal law has prohibited a database containing gun registration information or gun permit holders from being maintained. There’s a provision in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ (ATF) appropriations bill that keeps the agency from spending any money on such a thing. The Washington Post reported that the National Rifle Association, one of the nation’s most powerful special interest and single issue groups, not only co-wrote the 1986 legislation that first made maintaining records about gun ownership illegal, but also considers a national database of gun registrations a violation of the constitution.
The issue of data availability on the state level is not always clear. Like the federal government, most states don’t make data available or they greatly limit what people can access. In some states–such as Vermont and Wyoming–there are no permits or licenses required to purchase or carry a gun, so there are no data to be made public or keep private. And in a number of states, permits to carry guns are issued by local sheriff's offices as opposed to a state agency, so whether data is public or not may vary.
Some states have already moved from an open to a private system. In 2010, the Virginia legislature repealed laws that required information about gun ownership and registration be collected and ordered that all existing records be destroyed.
In the state of Illinois, an NRA affiliate beat back an attempt to make such records public. In 2011, the attorney general in that state ruled identifying information about gun owners — information that was historically confidential — public after the Associated Press filed a freedom of information request. The Illinois State Rifle Association then filed a lawsuit against that action and won a temporary restraining order against the release of any identifying information. Legislation was subsequently introduced and passed that amended the FOIA laws in Illinois making gun ownership information confidential once again.
Meanwhile, other states, including Alabama, Indiana and Ohio, make only broad statistical information about gun ownership public, while any identifying information gun owners is off limits.
(Contributing: Nancy Watzman, Jake Harper, Louis Serino, Lindsay Young and Kathy Kiely. Graphic by Bob Lannon)