A growing number of state governments are tightening the reins on databases involving concealed weapon permits, making it nearly impossible for reporters to uncover information potentially vital to the public’s interest.
Journalists should especially take notice of this issue because experts say the media is partially to blame for the closing of these records.
While some journalists have used the information in the records to produce investigative work, others have chosen to publish complete databases online, which can include what many consider to be private information of law-abiding citizens. The public’s outrage at having this information revealed for no apparent reason has resulted in public support for many states’ legislation aimed at closing these records.
Most involved in this debate seem to agree that it’s not a First Amendment versus Second Amendment fight but rather a disagreement about whether the public is better served to have this type of information open or concealed.
Former journalist and Missouri School of Journalism doctoral student Aimee Edmondson conducted a study of all 50 states in 2007 for her paper titled, “Packing heat: a gun battle between privacy and access.” She examined the states’ sunshine laws and focused on what these laws said about concealed weapon permits.
Edmondson said that when she conducted the study, 28 states explicitly stated that concealed carry permit databases were closed, and only five explicitly stated that they were open. She said things are constantly changing.
Throughout her research, Edmondson said she found that the courts “were all over the place” on this topic, but the legislatures have been the driving force behind these changes.
Helpful or harmful
In honor of the 2007 Sunshine Week, The Roanoke Times columnist Christian Trejbal decided to focus his open records piece on how concealed weapons permits are open to the public. As a “gift,” the paper created a database that held permit holder’s names and addresses and published the information on its Web site.
Within 24 hours, Trejbal’s column received numerous online comments from angry readers, including some who were listed in the database. Readers’ comments included questions about why the paper felt posting the database was a good idea. Many who commented were outraged and hurt over having their information revealed.
As a result, the newspaper removed the database because there may have been names on the list that should not have been released, according to an editorial note on the Web site.
The damage, however, was already done.
The database stirred what became a battle between open-government advocates and those who believe such information should not be available to the public.
While some open-government advocates might not have agreed with what The Roanoke Times did with the database, they felt that closing down records from the public would not be the best solution.
Groups on the opposing side, including the National Rifle Association, don’t believe the public is positively served when information about gun owners becomes available on the Internet, according to NRA spokesperson Ashley Varner.
Virginia Coalition for Open Government former executive director Jennifer Perkins said the real issue was not preventing legislation from happening, but rather trying to find a compromise. She said Virginia’s concealed weapon documents are not as open as they once were but can still be requested — for now. Perkins said the fight will continue in next year’s session.
She said that without a doubt, the reason concealed weapons permits were almost closed in Virginia this year, and still might be closed next year, relates to the backlash people have had to The Roanoke Times column.
“Everyone was surprised by the impact of it,” she said.
The Roanoke Times declined to comment about the column or about the fallout it may have caused.
Perkins said there was one exception some gun-rights groups were trying to allow when asking for the records to be closed. She said gun solicitors still wanted access to the database so they could continue their mailings to gun owners for sales purposes. She said these groups typically are the ones that ask for the records the most.
Perkins said this whole episode was a perfect example of how people need to recognize that there is a difference between what information should be shared with the public and what information, while legal to make public, should not be.
Unlike those in Virginia, open government groups in other states, such as South Carolina, have not been able to keep these databases open.
Varner said her organization supports the government when it comes to making sure the wrong people do not get guns. However, she said government officials are the ones who should be going through these documents, making sure they are accurate — not journalists.
“It’s not part of the media’s job to go fishing through law abiding citizens’ personal information,” Varner said.
Two journalists from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel disagree.
Megan O’Matz, an investigative reporter, and John Maines, a computer-assisted reporting editor, broke a series in 2007 about how concealed weapons permits were not being handled correctly in Florida.
Maines said the work journalists do is what makes our political system work because it holds governmental officials accountable to the public. Maines and O’Matz believe their series shows that journalists play an important and necessary watchdog role.
The “Licensed to Carry” series revealed numerous issues with the Florida gun permit system — most notably that people with criminal backgrounds were granted concealed weapons permits. Their four-day series prompted officials in Florida to examine the permit process, especially the loopholes that were allowing people with criminal backgrounds to receive concealed weapons permits.
O’Matz and Maines reported in their story that the Legislature was closing access to the records July 1, 2006. An Orlando television station had put the database online and, as was the case in Virginia, many of those listed on the database voiced their anger. Government officials in Florida listened to the public’s outcry and changed the law.
O’Matz and Maines knew about this deadline but refused to let it get in their way. They requested the database from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services with what should have been plenty of time to spare, yet they were met with obstacles that took up more time than could have been predicted.
At first they were given a database that included limited information about the permit holders. When they asked for a complete database, they were given what they considered high cost estimates for producing the information: at one point, they were quoted a price of $13,000.
O’Matz said the Department of Agriculture was trying to discourage them by charging excessively high rates, but the support of her newspaper helped fight through the barriers.
Eventually, the Sun-Sentinel and the Department of Agriculture brought their lawyers into the discussion. After what Maines described as months of negotiation, the Sun-Sentinel received the database, but it was a bad copy. Maines said the Florida Department of Agriculture apologized for sending them a bad copy and finally got them a good copy June 27, just days before the records closed.
Instead of posting the database online, O’Matz and Maines did their own intense investigation using the information. The result of this detailed work was the “Licensed to Carry” series, which won numerous awards, including three from SPJ’s South Florida Pro Chapter’s 2008 Sunshine State Awards: the James Batten Award for Public Service; the Gene Miller Award for Investigative Reporting in the large newspaper division; and first place in the social policy reporting category.
The two reporters said their series outraged readers, and people demanded changes. This time, however, the outrage was directed at the courts and government officials. The public wanted the loopholes fixed to keep criminals from getting permits.
O’Matz and Maines believe they received this type of positive reaction from the public because they used the database properly.
“The latest craze is just posting databases online,” Maines said. “If there is no journalistic element to it, you have to wonder if you are doing your job.”