Virginian-Pilot editorial: concealed weapons

Virginian-Pilot editorial:
April 16, 2007

When The Roanoke Times put up on its Web site a database of everyone in the state with a concealed-weapons permit, it prompted a nationwide outcry from outed gunowners - many of them worried about their safety.

Richmond's reaction to the online indiscretion could've easily made a bad situation worse. At the moment, we have Attorney General Bob McDonnell to thank that it didn't.

Having said that, there are certainly no victories in this entire episode, for anyone, among them the media, gun-rights advocates and open-government types.

An explanation: Whenever a Virginian applies to carry a concealed gun, the government gathers information, which it then puts into a database maintained by the state police. That database was freely accessible to anyone who asked for it. And then Roanoke decided to make the database available on the Web to anyone who wanted to search it.

There were crime victims in there, and others who had reason to worry about stalkers or others with nefarious intent. The newspaper quickly pulled the database off its Web site, but the outrage didn't die.

After weeks of recrimination, last week McDonnell issued an opinion on disseminating the database. Essentially, McDonnell says the information should remain open to public inspection. Practically, though, it may be far harder to get.

Information from permit-holders will continue to be available in local courthouses. But McDonnell gave the state police permission to withhold the database itself: "it is my opinion that the express language... limits the use of concealed carry permit information to law-enforcement personnel for investigative purposes"

That's an inference based on this language in state statute: "The State Police shall enter the permittee's name and description in the Virginia Criminal Information Network so that the permit's existence and current status will be made known to law-enforcement personnel accessing the Network for investigative purposes."

In Virginia, a public record is presumed to be open to public scrutiny. To withhold this database and not run afoul of Virginia's open-records laws requires the assumption that the database is to be used only for investigative purposes, which requires a bit of a leap. But only a bit.

There is certainly precedent for handling some kinds of information this way. Criminal records, for example, are available online, but in a way that allows the public to search only one city at a time. Detailed property records are available - in most cases - only at courthouses.

McDonnell's decision has been met with discomfort by both open-records advocates, who hate to see this kind of information concealed, and from political groups - including gun-rights advocates - who've used the database to raise money, awareness, or to spur action.

The AG has been criticized by some for taking the easy way out to score political points. While a decision absolutely defending the public's right to access the database might've been nice, it would've only invited legislators to close it down - or worse - when the General Assembly reconvenes in 2008.

McDonnell's opinion may not be the ideal choice, but it is the sensible one. ďż˝