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Guns and Secrets: Shutting Out The Public

Last spring, when Roanoke Times editorial writer Christian Trejbal celebrated Sunshine Week in Virginia by publishing a public record listing the people who hold permits to carry concealed weapons, a whole lot of supposedly freedom-loving gun owners went, um, ballistic.

They cried foul, saying that maybe public records shouldn't be quite so public. Now, Virginia legislators are moving to respond to their loudest constituents' demands, preparing bills for the forthcoming session in Richmond that would restrict access to those public records, making them hardly public at all.

The original decision to publish the list was a proud moment in Virginia journalism, a perfectly reasonable and responsible exercise of the public's right to information.

But opponents of publication said that because some people have gun permits as a result of having been victims of crime, those folks shouldn't have their identities plastered all over the newspaper. Well, fine, said the Roanoke Times, which promptly took the list off its web site.

That unfortunate retreat has paved the way for a state advisory council to recommend that the database of permit holders be permanently closed to easy public view (it would still be possible to go to a county courthouse and see the local records, but the statewide database would be closed to the public). Some pro-gun groups, such as the Virginia Citizens Defense League, which used the state database as a resource to recruit new members, see the folly in this and realize that anytime the government removes basic rights, all other civil liberties are at risk.

But all too many folks are happy to eliminate a right for all Virginians to protect a small subset of permit holders who may have a legitimate fear of having their name available for all to see. It would be easy to create an exception to the rule for people in that category rather than sweeping away the broader right of public access.

Some newspapers around the state regularly publish lists of new concealed weapon permits granted in their jurisdictions--an excellent public service. Would that service be threatened by these new restrictions? Probably not, according to legislators, but should we even have to ask that question about public records? Open government is for everyone, not just for those who have the savvy to know how to search the courthouse records.

By Marc Fisher |  January 2, 2008; 7:37 AM ET
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Comments

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The whole concept of publishing the names and addresses of individuals who hold concealed carry permits is based on the false belief that these people are "dangerous" and they need to be identified so that neighbors can avoid them like convicted sex offenders. In order to receive a Virginia permit individuals must undergo a law enforcement background check and take a firearms safety course, so these individuals are in fact certified by the State as law-abiding citizens. Marc, do you know if all your liberal neighbors could pass a criminal background check?

Posted by: responsible citizen | January 2, 2008 9:19 AM

I veiw this as a shameful moment in VA journalism history. Far from reasonable and responsible, it is what many Americans find most contemptable in modern journalism; an arrognace and elitism that speaks volumes of the contempt that journalist have for their nation, its constitution and the principals it is founded on. But one of those principles is your right to make a perfect ass of yourself with the things you say and publish.

Posted by: Ken harmon | January 2, 2008 9:43 AM

I don't have a problem with the info bieng available for marketing and political purposes. There is no reason for newspapers to publish the information - it only gives ideas to local burglars. Really another example of the media bias again gun ownership. The newspapers seem to be doing this to drew unwanted attention to permit holders.

There is a lot of public information out there about anti-gun journalists - I imagine Mark Fisher would feel harassed if his home address, property tax and other public information was published on a website.

Posted by: Paul | January 2, 2008 9:50 AM

Well, it's all or none, Marc. If you want to expose CCW permit holders, then let's go all the way and publish any public health records which show disease esposure(HIV, AIDS, TB, etc.) of citizens, open up the criminal database so we can see who's been convicted of what and the income tax rolls. For a start. But I'm sure your only objective here really was more snideness directed at gun owners under the guise of "journalistic principles". How's that DC gun ban working out?

Posted by: Stick | January 2, 2008 9:53 AM

"Some newspapers around the state regularly publish lists of new concealed weapon permits granted in their jurisdictions--an excellent public service."
How, exactly is this an "excellent public service"? More critically, what purpose does it serve? Oh, wait, I know, it feeds the "Oooh, anybody with a gun is dangerous" hysteria. Well, tell me, since many Americans also think that people with HIV or AIDS are dangerous, would it be "an excellent public service" to publish their names, so that people can react accordingly? Didn't think so.

Posted by: Unbelievable | January 2, 2008 10:16 AM

Actually, I think the public has the right to know where reporters live; whether or not their children attend public school; and how much income they report to the IRS and state revenue collection agencies.

That would include you too, Marc.

A better informed public would be able to spot reporting bias much easier that way.

Posted by: SoMD | January 2, 2008 10:26 AM

Uh, Marc. You twit. Have you ever thought of the flip side to your argument? Probably not.
A criminal could easily use the list, not to target those who have guns and a permit, but those who do not.
As a journalist myself, you and your kind make me ill.

Posted by: Bob | January 2, 2008 10:41 AM

How about a regular column listing emergency room admissions of gunshot victims, instead? For a state the size of Virginia, that would be a daily feature. Be sure to include the ages of all the minor children.

Posted by: Mike Licht | January 2, 2008 10:45 AM

Actually, Mike, that might not be a bad idea because it would probably show you and the rest of the gun-ban crowd how few there actually are. I'm assuming that you'd exclude gang-bangers and drug criminals from that as they're going to get guns no matter what.

Posted by: Stick | January 2, 2008 11:01 AM

Meh, whatever. Some of us aren't ashamed of the fact we own weapons. In fact, you can print my name on the front page.

Posted by: Ian S | January 2, 2008 11:28 AM

Marc is oversimplifying the issue. It's not just about the right to open government; one must also consider the competing civil liberties of gun owners.

To the extent that private gun ownership is protected by the Second Amendment (and the Supreme Court is likely to give us some clarity soon when it reviews DC's gun ban), the relevant question has to be whether publication of the names of concealed-carry permittees infringes their rights under the Second Amendment.

Other Constitutional rights have been held to include certain interests in secrecy. The First Amendment is a good example: If, for instance, a government makes public space available for private organizations, like meeting rooms in a community center, I suspect that it could not legally require the organization to disclose a list of its members as a condition of using the space. Similarly, it probably could not require a church to disclose a list of its members as a condition of receiving tax-exempt status.

Also, journalists recognize secrecy interests all the time. The identities of sex crime victims generally are not disclosed. Anonymous sources are frequently used, especially in stories relating to government, even though the public has a high interest in knowing who is speaking. Some people might be interested to know who among their neighbors is a member of the NAACP or the NRA, but no newspaper would ever publish such a list even if it had the names. I might like to know who among my neighbors purchased Sudafed recently (one now has to sign a record at pharmacies to buy real Sudafed, since it's a common ingredient in homemade crystal meth), but I can't imagine a newspaper treating such a list as public.

Moreover, it's disingenuous to argue that publishing the list of concealed-carry owners was anything other than a political attack on those people. The Roanoke Times could publish a list of the name and address of every person convicted of a crime in the Roanoke Circuit Court if it chose to; that information is available online with a bit of digging. It didn't do so. It decided that the public had more need to know about lawful gun owners in their neighborhoods than convicted criminals. That's plainly a political judgment as much as it is a jouranlistic decision, and it's "perfectly reasonable and responsible" for people to criticize the paper's decision as such.

It's plain that Marc doesn't think much of the Second Amendment issues here, given that he doesn't mention them. Others, particularly gun owners and civil-liberties advocates, may differ, though, and I'll leave it to them to make the arguments. Marc's column would have been stronger, though, if he had at least acknowledged the competing rights and attempted to address them.

Posted by: Tom T. | January 2, 2008 11:40 AM

It's an incomplete list, anyway...it only identifies concealed-carry permit holders, not everyone who owns a firearm (for example, someone who owns only rifles and shotguns would not be on it), so the idea of putting it out for public safety and awareness is tenuous at best.

Posted by: 23112 | January 2, 2008 12:18 PM

Stick and Tom T. beat me to it; Fisher can't see the forest for the trees of his anti-gun-owner crusade. Too bad.

Posted by: K-Romulus | January 2, 2008 12:18 PM

Many states provide victims of domestic violence an opportunity to have their names concealed on voter registration forms and other public documents, the same could easily be done for those in Virginia with regard to guns.

Also, keep in mind they weren't publishing the names of every gun permit holder in the state, they were publishing those who took the time, effort and money to apply for a CONCEALED weapon permit and that to me is vastly different that your neighbor Jim who has a hunting rifle in his garage.

Posted by: Adams Morgan | January 2, 2008 12:21 PM

I don't know if any of you read Christian Trejbel's original column that apparently accompanied the database of gun owner (I just did), and I haven't decided how I personally feel about listing such a database with so much ease, but Trejbel's motives for doing so are pretty obvious, and can be clearly seen simply by reading his article. By his logic Trejbel considers legal handgun owners, much like sex offenders, dangerous enough to be worth posting a list so you'll know "if someone you know is carrying", like that's somehow a scarlet letter against their name. Except I don't know why legal handgun owners need to be wholesale regarded as predators, as is much more prudent with respect to sexual predators.

Then again, the Roanoke Times hardly tries to cover its bias, which is why it's one of the many worthless newsprint publications in the country.

Posted by: Wakka Wakka | January 2, 2008 12:22 PM

Lets publish the names of elite white newspaper columists who make over a $100k a year who send thier children to private
schools rather than to the DC public schools. Especially when these columnists have several columns a month about how bad the DC public schools are. If you live in DC and your kids arent going to DC public schools shout up until you put your kids in DC schools.

Congress must mandate that DC have the same gun owner rights as VA and enact CCW laws for DC. Also they should mandate that every adult in DC unless prohibited by law must carry a hand gun in a holster in plain public view to include tourists, visitors and individuals who work in DC.
Bet crime drops!

Posted by: Anonymous | January 2, 2008 12:24 PM

Stick: Yes, I believe the public needs to see the actual daily toll firearms take on their owners and the families of owners through accidents, suicides, and spousal homicides. Don't leave criminals or legal gun owners out. Don't leave law-enforcement out. All gunshot wounds and fatalities. Every single one. Period. That is what it will take for some people to understand the public health dimensions of firearms ownership in a climate of political posturing.

Posted by: Mike Licht | January 2, 2008 12:53 PM

This list should be published prominently and updated frequently. People who carry
CONCEALED weapons are a real and potential menace, much, much worse than most so-called sex offenders. If the carriers of these weapons are so benign, why are they panic stricken to make thais known? They are really nothing but evil cowards.

Posted by: So MD | January 2, 2008 1:02 PM

Post @ 01:02PM was by "So MD", not "SoMD".

The "SoMD" you all know (and slam) would go off topic and try to initiate serious discussion on issues that involve everybody, such as:

US military death count in Iraq for 2007: 901
State of Virginia death count on the roads: 1,000 (as of December 30, 2007)

Why does it appear that our service men/women are safer in Iraq than driving in Virginia?

Posted by: SoMD | January 2, 2008 1:38 PM

"This list should be published prominently and updated frequently. People who carry
CONCEALED weapons are a real and potential menace, much, much worse than most so-called sex offenders. If the carriers of these weapons are so benign, why are they panic stricken to make thais known? They are really nothing but evil cowards."

MD, how are persons who carry a weapon LEGALLY a menace that is as you say, "much much worse than so-called sex offenders"?
I'm sorry, but the evil cowards are the sex offenders, not a person carrying legally.

Posted by: Bob | January 2, 2008 1:42 PM

What's next? Publishing the list of names of women who have publicly funded abortions?

Posted by: Bob | January 2, 2008 1:47 PM

Jeez - you people need to READ Marc's post before hitting your keyboards. He was using the gun ownership list as an example. He is saying that the larger issue is more important than a minor issue or two. Clearly, everyone is going to dislike some aspect of every large issue but that shouldn't distract us from the central issue. I agree with Marc, BTW.
"Open government is for everyone, not just for those who have the savvy to know how to search the courthouse records."

Posted by: RCT | January 2, 2008 3:07 PM

RCT, even the most open of governments must still comply with the Constitution, and I think there are valid arguments that a public registry infringes upon the Seccond Amendment. (Indeed, I think there are arguments that the very requirement of a permit for a concealed carry is itself unconstitutional, and we may well see that lawsuit in the wake of the litigation over the DC gun ban). Many people will not find those arguments persuasive, but I just think it's oversimoplifying a bit to ignore them.

SoMD, I suspect that there are way more drivers on Virginia roads than US troops in Iraq.

Posted by: Tom T. | January 2, 2008 3:41 PM

Since we're suggesting legal remedies here, how about this one:
Anyone with a CCW permit caught DUI automatically loses the driver's license and the carry permit.

What's worse than a drunk driver? An armed drunk.

Posted by: Mike Licht | January 2, 2008 4:54 PM

"As a journalist myself, you and your kind make me ill."

For a "journalist," Bob, you don't write English too good.

Posted by: Spectator2 | January 2, 2008 4:59 PM

Tom T.

True, but that is just Virginia. The last estimate I saw for CONUS was over 38,000 traffic fatalities in 2007 alone.

It's time for our good Senator's (such as Sen. Webb of VA) to cut back on the Iraq war sound bites and do something productive for their constituents - like end the slaughter on the roads.

Posted by: SoMD | January 2, 2008 5:31 PM

"Since we're suggesting legal remedies here, how about this one:
Anyone with a CCW permit caught DUI automatically loses the driver's license and the carry permit.

What's worse than a drunk driver? An armed drunk."

You would lose the permit, then you would be charged with illegal possession of a firearm. If you are under the influence of alcohol, your permit is null and void.

Posted by: Bob | January 2, 2008 6:48 PM

Rather be tried by 12 then carried by six! I take my guns and freedom of the press. Lets see what was total murder rate in NOVA and lets compare that to DC, Montgomery and PG counties and strict gun laws just dont seem to be working do they!
Congress must mandate that DC have the same gun laws as VA!

Posted by: Anonymous | January 2, 2008 7:04 PM

Tried by 12: Don't forget to include the suicides and accidental firearms deaths in your body-count. The vicitms are just as dead.

Posted by: Mike Licht | January 2, 2008 7:11 PM

"Tried by 12: Don't forget to include the suicides and accidental firearms deaths in your body-count. The vicitms are just as dead."

Accidental deaths perhaps, but killing yourself does not make you a victim. You are a perpetrator.

Posted by: Bob | January 2, 2008 8:59 PM

"How's that DC gun ban working out?"

Gee...I'd say about as well as the redneck gun culture worked out at VA Tech. Frankly, if Virginia wasn't awash in both stupidity and firearms, the DC gun ban would probably work out a whole lot better. Any chance you macho retards could stop selling hand-held killing machines to every psychopath who walks into a gun shop?

Posted by: oogliemooglie | January 3, 2008 11:58 AM

I don't think that Richmond should move to make these records less accessible. It's a public record. As with some records relating to law enforcement, there can be exceptions made to whose records are released. If we try to limit access to government records, we're starting dow a slippery slope. As to the argument that listing the names of permit holders could attract criminals to that home, well, with that logic, let's stop printing the salaries of government employees. It lets criminals know where the money is.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 3, 2008 12:01 PM

Too bad for old ogglie that the anti-handgun state of MD was the source of the most guns traced in DC. What was that about "redneck?" LOL! Can't even get the stats right!

Posted by: k-romulus | January 3, 2008 1:01 PM

" . . killing yourself does not make you a victim."

It makes you dead. By firearms. Count it.

Posted by: Mike Licht | January 3, 2008 1:17 PM

Gee...I'd say about as well as the redneck gun culture worked out at VA Tech. Frankly, if Virginia wasn't awash in both stupidity and firearms, the DC gun ban would probably work out a whole lot better. Any chance you macho retards could stop selling hand-held killing machines to every psychopath who walks into a gun shop?

Posted by: oogliemooglie | January 3, 2008 11:58 AM

k-romulus is right. Further, you cannot buy a handgun in Virginia unless you can prove your are a legal resident of the state. Finally, Va Tech had in effect at the time of the shootings a gun prohibition more severe than even DC's: no firearms permitted on campus under any circumstances, period. BTW, I doubt if anyone whould characterize Cho Seung-Hei as a redneck.

Posted by: hisroc | January 3, 2008 2:08 PM

"Frankly, if Virginia wasn't awash in both stupidity and firearms, the DC gun ban would probably work out a whole lot better."

Hahahahaha, that's a good joke!

Posted by: Anonymous | January 3, 2008 5:07 PM

With over half the states permitting their law abiding citizens to carry concealed handguns, there should be plenty of data to support the fears expressed by the ninnies that have been foaming at the mouth accusing these citizens of being a danger and demanding their names be exposed. But there isn't any data to support these irrational fears. In fact, just the opposite is true; the localities that permit concealed carry are far safer places to live. Those who have the permits are demonstrably good citizens and are not the cause of violent crime anywhere. They are exactly the opposite and it is clear that they use this right to protect themselves and those around them. So what are you doing Marc, to improve the safety of your community?

Posted by: Ken H | January 4, 2008 11:06 AM

I'm sure all guys who write comments are teens or even younger. If you are older, than shame on you!

Posted by: nunyabizness | April 6, 2008 3:33 PM

It's gratifying to see not only that such positive things happen, but that they are being REPORTED.

Posted by: ichigo bankai | April 9, 2008 6:28 AM

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