Tuesday, February 19, 2013 12:17 AM
Newton: Make gun permits private
By Corey Friedman | Times Online Editor
Names of North Carolina concealed handgun owners would be kept confidential under a bill that state Sen. Buck Newton is backing.
Senate Bill 28 would exclude concealed handgun and pistol purchase permits from the state Public Records Act. Lawmakers drafted the bill after a New York newspaper published a list of permit-holders’ names and addresses, igniting a national debate on gun-owner privacy.
"Someone’s Second Amendment right to possess a firearm should not have to lead to public ridicule and pressure,” said Newton, a Wilson Republican. "They should not have to worry about their privacy being invaded just because they choose to exercise their Second Amendment right and try to comply with the law.”
Supporters believe allowing public access to gun permits could help thieves find gun owners to target, said Sen. Stan Bingham, a Denton Republican and the bill’s primary sponsor.
"I had a lot of folks call me who are gun advocates, and they were concerned about breaking and entering and armed robbery,” Bingham said. "It’s just for the protection of firearm owners.”
Neither Bingham nor Newton could recall a documented case where public gun permit information had led to a gun theft or other crime. Opponents of the bill say it’s a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.
"There’s no case that suggests this is needed because none has ever happened,” said Beth Grace, executive director of the North Carolina Press Association. "There is absolutely no precipitating incident other than they’re mad at the newspaper and that’s why they’re doing it here.”
The trade group representing more than 100 North Carolina newspapers argues that lawmakers can’t demonstrate a good reason to exclude gun permits from the public records law.
"In our opinion, it is just an excuse to make records secret for no reason,” Grace said. "There is no indication that there is a danger to anyone.”
Grace said public records advocates want to hold the local sheriffs who issue concealed-carry permits accountable.
"It’s important that we all know as much as we can possibly know when our government is involved,” she said. "The reason it’s public in the first place is because the government is involved in licensing.”
In December, the Westchester, N.Y.-based Journal News published an interactive map of concealed handgun permit holders that displayed gun owners’ names and addresses. The move drew fierce criticism from gun-rights advocates, who said permit holders’ privacy had been invaded.
A national controversy over gun permit records ensued, with some newspapers and television stations choosing to publish gun-owner data and lawmakers in numerous states filing bills to make the records private.
"I wouldn’t dare put in the paper that I have someone in my area that is one of the most noted gun collectors in the country,” Bingham said.
The North Carolina bill’s primary sponsor is owner and publisher of the weekly Denton Orator. Bingham said many newspapers choose not to publish gun owners’ names and addresses, but he believes a new law is necessary because not all exercise that discretion.
"I’d say most probably would have enough common sense on their staff that they wouldn’t go there, but I would not put that past every paper,” he said.
Bingham said a central North Carolina newspaper and a Raleigh TV station have published concealed handgun permits.
The N.C. Sheriffs’ Association is supporting the bill, and Eddie Caldwell, the group’s executive vice president and general counsel, cited the potential for gun thefts as a key reason.
"Citizens have complained to the sheriffs saying that they don’t want the information to be released,” Caldwell said. "The sheriffs are responding to their citizens’ concerns.”
Caldwell said the bill represents a tug-of-war between government transparency and personal privacy.
"Like most issues in the legislature, it’s a balancing act,” he said. "Everyone supports the concept of open records and public records, and everyone supports a certain degree of privacy for individuals. You have to balance that out.”
Newton said privacy is the overriding concern.
"Why would anybody want people to know how many guns they have in their house?” he said. "I don’t think that information should be made public to anybody, just like I don’t think someone’s health records or pharmaceutical records should be made public. I don’t see how this is in any way, shape or form information that the public should have.”
SB 28 was filed on Jan. 31 and has since been referred to the Senate’s Judiciary II committee. Bingham said the bill did not clear committee review last week, but he expects it to advance.
If the bill passes, Grace said, state public records laws will be weakened and all North Carolinians stand to suffer.
"I think it hurts open-records laws in this state again by a legislature that ran on a platform of openness ... ,” Grace said. "It just makes no sense.”
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