Daily Press editorial: Concealed-gun permits

(Newport News) Daily Press
April 11 2007

Two weeks ago we asked readers whether they thought the public should have access to records showing who has a permit to carry a concealed weapon. The question was prompted by the outrage that followed publication on The Roanoke Times' Web site of a list of the names and addresses of permit holders statewide.

Readers who responded - excerpts from some of the responses are printed below - overwhelmingly said no. They don't want the records open to the public.

We disagree - with an important qualification.

First, to the question of whether the records should be open. Yes.

The default position for government records is that they should be available for public inspection. Shut government away from citizens' scrutiny, and pretty soon you compromise liberty, too.

Government records should be carved out for special treatment - kept secret - only if a compelling case can be made for doing so. That case can't be made for concealed-gun permits. Attorney General Bob McDonnell's recent opinion that the database of permit holders is an investigative tool and, as such, is exempt from public access smells of political expediency.


One of the arguments for closing concealed-carry records - that criminals and others would use them for their own nefarious ends - frays when subjected to scrutiny. You'd have to think criminals pretty stupid to believe they'd target homes that essentially have a "beware of guns" sign out. Most folks in the market for illegal guns would have no trouble getting one with a lot less hassle and risk than breaking into the home of someone known to be armed.

Another argument offered - that these are not records of government proceedings - also fails. They are the result of a government process that regulates how weapons can be carried and where, a process that includes not only issuing pieces of paper but also checking criminal history. That's government at work.

There are certain categories of government records where the case for secrecy can be made. School and medical records fall in this group: They contain personal information no stranger has any need or right to know, information that was not gathered at the subject's request. A record of a concealed-weapon permit is created only because an individual applied for a permit. And, by law, it doesn't include personal information beyond basic identifiers that are readily available from other sources.


If records are public, they should also be available on the Internet. There is ongoing discussion - not just about gun permits - about whether some records should be available at the courthouse or other government office, but not accessible online. It's time to put a halt to that thinking. If it's a public document, it should be available on the Internet, because that is often the most convenient way to give the public access to public information. Remember - this is about government serving the public, not government collecting information and then trying to hide it from the public.

Of course, simply because a record is available for public scrutiny doesn't mean a newspaper or any other media should print or broadcast it. Flawed decisions about what information to publish can sometimes result in even more flawed efforts to regulate information - such as the attorney general's opinion. No doubt in its next session, the General Assembly will consider legislation aimed at closing public access to concealed-weapons records. That's a bad idea and ought to be rejected.


Here, perhaps, is a better approach - that "qualification" mentioned earlier: Virginia should join the ranks of those states that don't require the permits.

When permits were more restricted, when they were issued only to people who could demonstrate a good reason for needing to carry concealed, they made sense. But most restrictions on acquiring a concealed-weapons permit were removed in 1995. Now there's little scrutiny beyond a criminal history check.

So what's the point of requiring a permit and having a record? That's the larger question lawmakers should revisit. In fact, the question of what information government should collect is ripe for review.

If there's to be a record, the public should have access. But there should be a record only if there's a compelling need. In the case of concealed-weapons permits, there is no such need.

Yes, there should be places - more places, such as city council chambers - where it's illegal to carry a weapon. But that's a different issue for a different day.ďż˝