Last week, Ohio lawmakers finally plastered over the legal peephole that has, for a dozen years, let journalists research concealed-handgun licensees in the state.
Well, “research” might be putting it strongly. Reporters were only allowed to view gun permit records in person, at the county sheriff’s office, one county after the next — and they couldn’t write anything down. Inside the viewing room, paper, pencils, and pens were contraband; copying verboten. What journalists could do was bring a name or names into their local chamber of secrets to check whether the county had issued, suspended, or revoked a handgun license for a particular person.
“You had to memorize what you were looking at,” Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, tells The Trace. “It was crazy, but it was better than nothing.”
But on July 1, Ohio joined the majority of U.S. states that, when faced with the thorny constitutional question of how much the public deserves to know about concealed-gun licensees in their midst, settled on a big fat “nothing.”
According to the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press, at least 27 states and the District of Columbia ban public release of gun license records. Six states require no permit for concealed carry, which neatly settles the paper-trail problem. So does the 2010 Nevada Supreme Court decision that made approved gun permit records permanently public. But every other state presents a moving target for journalists and researchers. A pastiche of stipulations govern access to gun license records, and they can change as often as the legislature meets. Some states keep new permits secret for 45 days before making them public; others let licensees opt out of searchable lists. Colorado allows the release of names but not addresses, while several others will provide only aggregate data.
Open-records laws are bound to differ from state to state, of course, but rules about gun license information vary more widely and change more often than most if not all other kinds of public disclosure. That’s because concealed-carry permits are where the First and Second Amendments collide.
Journalists say they should be public so the media can do with gun licensing what it does with other government programs: compare rules against reality and look for mischief. In 2006, just before Florida made the information private, Fort Lauderdale’s Sun Sentinel checked permit lists against criminal records and found hundreds of people had been granted licenses despite outstanding warrants, felony convictions, or ongoing domestic violence injunctions. The New York Times uncovered similar results in 2011 with its investigation of permits in North Carolina. But gun-rights groups say the records should be private because they they provide thieves with an easy target — and subject responsible gun owners to undeserved public scorn. Both believe their positions should be the default absent a very good reason otherwise.
“As a newspaper association, I don’t have a dog in the [concealed carry] fight,” says Hetzel. “But once the government decides to create a record, it’s supposed to be a public, open record, unless there is a compelling reason to close it. I have yet to hear a compelling reason why these records should be completely secret. All I hear are anecdotal fears that something bad might happen.”
Jim Irvine, chairman of the Buckeye Firearms Association, disagrees. “You go back to the media, and they don’t have one damn thing where any good has come out of this,” Irvine tells The Trace. “So why on earth would we risk people’s lives with personal data and give this information to people who, realistically, have caused some people some harm?”
Ohio created its licensing program in 2004 and, like most states, designated the records private. But then-Gov. Robert Taft III, a moderate Republican, vowed to veto the bill unless journalists could review them, creating what was dubbed the “media access loophole.”
This half-measure didn’t work well. In the first two years after passage, several papers published lists of area permit-holders on their websites, making licensee status show up with a simple Google search of someone’s name. Irvine says this endangered gun owners, including exposing two women who’d moved to Ohio fleeing violent relationships. “They had been successful, hadn’t been harassed, hadn’t been found in years, until the media goes and prints their name,” Irvine says, though he concedes, “This happened in the early days. I actually never talked to them.”
To stop mass lists, Ohio tweaked the law in 2006 to forbid “making copies,” the interpretation of which eventually banned even writing things down.
Hetzel says, “I kind of understand that. People would feel that [the lists] were sort of in their face. We kind of created our own problem in the media, by the outlets that did that.” But he doesn’t agree that gun owners were harmed. “I say, ‘Where’s your documentation that this is a real problem?’ but I never see it.”
After the 2006 change to the law, only one Ohio outlet published a comprehensive list of local permit holders. In 2007, the Sandusky Register ran a roster of the names, ages, and counties of residence of concealed-carry license holders in three counties. (All relevant links are now dead.) Editor Matt Westerhold said this was justified because it was lawful and the public was interested. The Buckeye Firearms Association said that Westerholt had made all listed license-holders potential targets for “bad guys.”
To demonstrate “just how much harm can come” from having one’s name in the newspaper, it published a step-by-step guide for stalking and harming Westerhold and his family, including the child who lived with his ex-wife. The article provided a partial birthday and social security number, along with tips on getting more data to make it “child’s play for a bad guy to open up credit accounts and commit various other acts of identity theft against him.”
“For us, we will pretend Mr. Westerhold was on this [concealed-carry license-holders’ list] and thus a bad guy is now targeting him,” wrote Ken Hanson, Buckeye Firearms Association legislative chair, in the post.
After discussing a mortgage Westerhold holds, Henson notes, “We also easily learn that Mr. Westerhold was cited into Oberlin Municipal Court for failure to wear a seatbelt and given a warning for speeding. We see he drives a 2003 Blue Chevy Tracker license plate DA*3816. A bad guy now has a car to look for around the Register’s parking lot if he wants to find him.”
While redacting some data, Hanson assured readers, “all of the information we used is available now, and anyone can find this type of information on a neighbor with very little effort.”
“[F]or the hardcore bad guy,” Hanson suggested means to find Westerhold’s daughter:
“With very little effort we find ex-wife’s residence and now are relatively sure of which public school his pre-teen child goes to simply by checking the auditor’s maps for this residence for school districts. A check of the school website will show us the bus schedule for that particular school and that street or address, so we will almost certainly, with little effort, know which bus the child rides and what time it picks up/drops off. Further, most public libraries keep copies of the local school yearbooks in the reference section.”
Irvine defends this act today. “I will tell you, we had a lot more [on Westerhold],” he says. “We didn’t have to redact out any digits of his SSN. I could have printed the whole thing, but I’m not going to do that, because it’s not right … I could have printed the sex of his child, but I didn’t. I could have told you the time — I could have given you, I could have laid out for a pedophile exactly how to go kill her.”
After this, no more license-holders’ names were published outside of specific criminal instances until 2011. Then, shortly after Arizona U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords was shot at a public appearance, a writer for the Middletown Journal reported on local elected officials who travel armed. Many of those named were quoted and posed for pictures, clearly participating in the reportage. Still, the Buckeye Firearms Association was outraged. It pushed to end the loophole for good but a standalone bill to do so failed in 2013. So this year, lawmakers tacked the move onto the state budget. They succeeded.
“There’s no compelling reason why these records should be secret,” Hetzel says. “They just don’t like it, and at the end of the day, they have the political power to make it secret. That happens sometimes in politics, and it’s a bad day for open government.”
Irvine says, “It’s never been public record.” The now-closed access was, “a loophole to allow the media to access personal data on people they don’t like, to go carry out a vendetta. That’s what’s happened for 12 years, and now it’s done.”
[Photo: Flickr user Dennis Skley]