Paperâ€™s publication of gun permit database sparks furor, prompts AG opinion
by Matt Haynes, VCOG intern
Roanoke Times opinion writer Christian Trejbal might have been surprised at the intensity of the public response he generated with his March 11 article, "Shedding light on concealed handguns." For some, the light was a little too bright.
To kick off Sunshine Week, Trejbal attempted to "illustrate the open government process" to his readers by publishing an online database identifying every concealed weapon permit holder in Virginia, a tally of just over 135,000 citizens. The Times created the database from the Virginia State Police’s concealed handgun permit list, which the VSP provided to Trejbal in response to a FOIA request. The Times converted the list into a database and posted it on Roanoke.com along with Trejbal’s editorial. The database allowed readers to access both the names and the addresses of every listed permit holder in the state. Immediately following the release on Roanoke.com , readers across the state flooded the newspaper with e-mails and phone calls to express their outrage.
Some public disfavor was surely predicted when Trejbal made reference to the likely "indignation of gun-toters" that would result from the release of this information.
What was not predicted, however, was that the database included the names and addresses of statutorily protected crime victims. Upon receiving numerous reports from readers relaying this information, the Times removed the database (just 24 hours after its original posting) and requested that the VSP re-examine its list to verify the released information.
Corinne Geller, spokeswoman for the VSP, announced the following day that the department’s handing-over of the list did not violate state law. She explained that while the law does protect the identity of some crime victims in certain situations, these restrictions did not apply to the concealed weapons list. Geller’s statement, however, was unable to quell the public outrage and left many lawmakers pushing for more answers.
One of these lawmakers, Del. Dave Nutter, R-Christiansburg, announced that he was seeking an official opinion from the Attorney General on the legality of the information’s release. Nutter then took things a step further by announcing his plans to introduce legislation next year that would seal the database completely.
Nutter did not respond to calls for further clarification of his position or plans.
Virginia is one of 25 states (including the District of Columbia) that consider concealed weapons lists to be public record, although many of these states offer specific exemptions for certain personal information.
On April 6, Attorney General Bob McDonnell published an official response to Nutter’s request. McDonnell stated that it was within the discretionary authority of the VSP to release the list under FOIA, but determined that the database’s sole purpose was as an investigative tool. As a result, McDonnell recommended that the VSP exercise their discretion and withhold the list in the interest of public safety, in particular, the safety of crime victims and witnesses. The opinion did not explain why the whole list would be shuttered just because some on the list might be victims or witnesses. If a public record contains both exempt and non-exempt material, the exempt material can be redacted, but the rest of the record should be released.
The AG’s opinion also took a reference to "personal information" found in the exemption for subscribers to government e-mail lists, which in turn referred to the definition of "personal information" in the Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act, and concluded that FOIA as a whole exempted personal information. This may have come as a suprise to some legislators who have been working to add such an exemption precisely because one does not exist.
The VSP immediately responded by closing the list to public access until it receives further advice from the General Assembly.
The implications of these actions have been far-reaching. Virginia’s FOI Adivosry Council appointed a subcommittee to address the issue of whether or not the database should be kept private (see FOIAC subcommittee update, page 4), and various public interest groups have voiced their concerns over the impact of this incident. The Virginia Citizen’s Defense League, a pro gun-rights group, is one of the more vocal groups, charging that too much emphasis is being placed on whether or not the database should be completely closed. The real problem, according to the VCDL, is ensuring that the list is not abused. The group has requested access to the list in the past and uses it to identify potential members.
Frosty Landon, former VCOG executive director, said the law needed to clarify exactly what information is private and what is not. He also expressed hoped the AG would work with state lawmakers to reach a solution without compromising open government.
Many states have taken steps to identify certain personal information as private and exempt from disclosure within their state public records laws. The most commonly exempted information is related to financial fraud, such as Social Security and bank account numbers. A small number of states exempt address and telephone information, while the majority of states allow an agency to disclose at their discretion if public safety and privacy would be impacted.
The Virginia incident was recently discussed on CNN’s Paula Zahn Now, taking the debate nationwide, and in May, reacting to similar concerns, the Texas legislature passed legislation closing concealed weapons records from the public.
Making Your FOIA Life Easier
A seminar for state and local records managers at the Library of Virginia
800 E. Broad St., Richmond
Thursday, May 30, 2013
9:00 - 12:00
Click here for a paper registration form OR
(note: you do NOT need a PayPal account to use the PayPal payment page)
About the FOI Blog
Check out our blog for updates on VCOG's work, upcoming events, news and commentary.
Show most recent blog posts
List/search blog posts
FOIA Council Subcommittee on Rights & Responsibilities
FOIA Council Subcommittee on Electronic Meetings
Making Your FOIA Life Easier - a records management seminar
How Many Clicks?
VCOG surveyed all 134 Virginia counties and independent cities and asked,
"How many clicks does it take to get to your local budget?"
Now, click the owl and find out how YOUR locality ranked.
Drive your open government pride
Show your FOIA pride!
Get the new FOIA car magnet.