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Lawmakers get new shot to close gun permit records

Friday, February 27, 2009

NASHVILLE (AP) -- Tennessee lawmakers are ready again to try to muzzle state records that list who has a permit to carry a concealed handgun, and this time they are considering making it a crime to publish information about gun ownership.

The measure sponsored by Rep. Eddie Bass, a Democrat from Prospect, would make information on gun permit holders confidential and exempt from the state's open records law. The bill is scheduled for a hearing Wednesday by the House Criminal Practice Subcommittee.

For 12 years, similar legislation has failed to make it to a floor vote, but this year's version has a new twist and a better chance of passage now that Democrats who previously blocked the bill, including former Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, no longer control the House.

The new bill would make unauthorized publication of the information a misdemeanor that could be punished with a maximum fine of $2,500.

Bass said letting the public see the gun permit database is an invasion of privacy and empowers criminals, making permit holders easy targets for burglaries and endangering women protecting themselves from their abusers.

The fine is necessary to deter publication of the information, Bass said.

Open records advocates are concerned that closing the records will stifle efforts to monitor whether the government is issuing the permits properly and contend the fine would amount to an unconstitutional prior restraint on publishing information about gun ownership.

"This bill will make it a criminal offense for the press to do its job," said Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. The Associated Press and other news organizations are members of TCOG, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Over the past few years, news outlets in the state have used the database for stories that reported ineligible people were getting permits issued and renewed because courts were not reporting protective orders to the state and that criminal background checks were not being performed because Tennessee lost access to the federal criminal database for over a year.

"Without the press reporting it, this would have gone unnoticed," Gibson said. "There are 6 million Tennesseans and those citizens have a right to know whether the government is protecting them by not issuing a gun permit to people who should not have them."

Bass said it is the responsibility of the Safety Department, and not the news media, to monitor who receives gun permits.

A Department of Safety report shows 627 permits were "revoked or suspended" in 2008 for felony convictions and alleged domestic violence.

Tennessee is one of 19 states that allow the public to access gun permit information, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. At least 21 states keep the information confidential.

Gun permit applications state that the information submitted will become public record, said Department of Safety spokesman Mike Browning. The department releases the name, date of birth, address, permit issue date and permit expiration date of all permit holders for $80.50.

The state has received 11 requests for the entire gun permit database since June 2008 from news media, a lawmaker and the general public, Browning said.

The Commercial Appeal in Memphis uploaded a version of the database to its Web site in December, but it did not draw attention until an early February story about a parking spot argument that ended with a motorist shot dead. A reader posted an online comment asking whether the man charged in the shooting had a permit to carry a gun. The newspaper responded with a post directing readers to its database, which deleted addresses and some other information the state releases.

Despite extensive complaints and threats, Editor Chris Peck said the paper has no plans to remove the database from its Web site.

At least one woman expressed appreciation for the list, saying she was able to identify that her stalker, who also had a felony conviction, owned a gun.

In recent years, The Tennessean in Nashville posted a similar database to its Web site, and The Daily Times in Maryville published local permit holders in its print edition. Neither newspaper continues to provide the information after reader outrage.

Chris W. Cox, executive director of the National Rifle Association's lobbying arm, said it is irresponsible to make data about concealed weapon holders public.

"The essence of right-to-carry is that in a world where wolves cannot distinguish between lions and lambs, the whole flock is safer," Cox said.



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