Privacy vs. the right to know

Roanoke Times editorial

The decision of the Virginia State Police to close its list of residents licensed to carry a concealed weapon is unfortunate, but it probably won't be the final word.

Perhaps the General Assembly can bring better clarity to the situation next year.

This editorial page bears no small measure of responsibility for this decision -- which comes after Attorney General Bob McDonnell issued an opinion at the request of Del. Dave Nutter, R-Christiansburg.

Nutter was reacting to outrage prompted by our online publication of a database of concealed carry holders in the state in conjunction with an editorial writer's column marking Sunshine Week, a celebration of open government.

As we noted previously, we made errors in judgment and process in the original decision to put the database online: We should have given fuller thought to the potential safety concerns of concealed carry holders who were law enforcement officers or victims of crimes and domestic violence, and we should have had a more compelling public purpose for posting the list.

But our mistakes cannot justify closing the door on this information.

There are important reasons for the public to know who is licensed to carry a concealed weapon.

By matching a similar list against other databases, for instance, reporters for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel were able to find that more than 1,400 convicted felons, including sex offenders, had managed to get a concealed carry permit. Hundreds of others kept their permits despite convictions for behaving recklessly with firearms.

Virginia may not have that problem, but if this list remains shrouded in secrecy, there will be no way to verify that.

The General Assembly should make changes in the law. State police should be able to redact the names of crime victims and law enforcement officers before releasing the list, for instance.

But a blanket ban on release of the list will not serve the public.

In his opinion, McDonnell said the state police had the "discretionary authority" to release the list, but also the responsibility not to release "sensitive personal information when the interests of public safety demand discretion."

As Frosty Landon, head of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government said, "We've got to be very careful that the law is clear, and bureaucrats aren't left scratching their heads as to what is sensitive personal information and what isn't."

The General Assembly will undoubtedly address this issue next session.

Legislators will be challenged to find a way to balance the valid concerns of law-abiding permit holders who have reason to fear for their safety if their personal information is made too readily available against the public's need and right to know whether the wrong people have been able to obtain concealed carry permits.

Open government is a vital principle in a democracy. When government is by the assent of the people, the presumption should always be against the government withholding information from the people.

The real world, of course, can be more complicated than that. The difficult task facing legislators will be thoughtfully consider competing interests and concerns.