Public input was CHP bill casualty

Yesterday, the governor signed a bill that will conceal all concealed handgun permit applications. Supporters rejoiced. Open government groups did not. In the process, my opposition is deemed "leftist anti-gun lunacy."

It is nothing of the sort. I just don't believe that the government -- specifically the courts -- should be able to administer a government-mandated permitting process in total secrecy.

Some gun owners say they are worried that the government will come for their guns, but guess what? Now, only the government, in the form of law enforcement and the courts, has information about those guns (CHPs, at least). Oversight? Checks and balances? Public accountability? Fuhgeddaboudit.

What's also stuck in my craw is a comment made by the patron, Sen. Mark Obenshain, in a Virginian-Pilot article after the legislation passed both the House and Senate.

"The bill that ultimately passed doesn't really relate to government operations," he said. "It relates to private information." Then he added that open-records advocates never came to him with their concerns.

First, as noted above, the records at issue absolutely, 100% do relate to government operations: the government requires permits for concealed carry, the government issues the permits. The permits may have personal information on them, but they are not "private" records. They are records generated by the government.

Second, there's a reason why open-records advocates didn't come to him. The bill as originally submitted was about protecting permit holder data on people who had secured protective orders for themselves. We never objected to that version of the bill because we did not oppose it. This bill made sense to us because we have always said that individual permit holders with specific needs could have a judge seal the permit, thus barring its disclosure.

That's the bill that went through the Senate subcommittee, committee and floor process. No opposition. No problem.

On the House side, however, in a late afternoon subcommittee meeting, without warning, the bill was amended to apply to all CHPs. The language amending the bill was not posted to the Legislative Information System until the next morning -- AFTER the full committee heard it, approved it and reported it out to the House floor. The whole thing took less than 18 hours.

I wasn't there for those meetings since the bill had not previously been controversial. I heard about the changes from others who were there. So, yes, shame on me, for assuming that the bill was going to remain in its same basic form when it crossed from one chamber to the other.

But to say that we did not raise concerns about permit data in general ignores the four-plus years we have written about and lobbied against similar proposals -- all of which were defeated.

It ignores our past lobbying efforts where we went directly to past patrons, fielded questions from this senator during committee testimony and distributed position papers this year to all senators prior to the Senate's consideration of the House amendments.

Finally, and most importantly, the comment ignores the public's possible interest in the bill.

Sure, I'm a lobbyist and I probably should have known better than to take my eye off of a bill that related to an area we usually follow. But radically amending a bill -- ANY bill -- and reporting it out of committee without public access to the amended language in a mere 18 hours, during which most of Virginians were a-snooze in their beds, completely cuts the general public, the citizens out of the process.

Lots of citizens rely on lobbyists, advocacy groups and news media to alert them to legislation they may care about. Other citizens follow it for themselves. Some take to the computer, the pen or the telephone to convey their opinions. And some even take time off of work or family obligations to make the trip to Richmond to express their views in person. How are they supposed to do any of that when bills are transformed and hurried forward without warning?

There are lots of open-government advocates among Virginia's citizens. Lots of them are gun owners. Some may have wanted to testify or express their concerns about the bill. Some may have wanted to support the new bill. Everyone was denied the option, though. It may be fair to cast blame on me, but it's not fair to cast blame on them for not speaking up.

Sen. Obenshain is by no means the only lawmaker I heard this session (and past sessions) who counter criticism of a bill by pointing to the fact that the dissenters didn't complain sooner, as if there is a cut-off period for a citizen's right to petition the government for redress of grievances.

The session is fast-paced and ever-changing. Citizens struggle to stay informed. Dismissing input -- or lack thereof -- because someone didn't play their cards at the right time in the lawmaking process makes that process look like a game, not the business of the people.

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