NY gun law restricts public access to gun owner data

Lilly Chapa | Freedom of Information | News | January 16, 2013

New York’s sweeping new gun control bill, signed into law on Tuesday, will allow gun owners to keep the fact that they own a weapon private, changing the previous version of the law that required such records to be public.

The measure was passed after sweeping through the Assembly and Senate in two days and is largely aimed at overhauling New York’s existing assault weapons ban. It allows gun owners to opt out of having their personal information disclosed under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL. It also creates a series of new state databases related to firearms that are not subject to FOIL.

With regard to gun license and permit application information, the new law states that no gun license data will be publicly available for 120 days after the bill became law. New and current permit owners can request that their application information be withheld from the public record permanently in certain situations, such as if they are a police officer, a victim of domestic violence, a juror or witness involved in criminal trials, fear for their life or are worried about "unwarranted harassment."

County clerks will process confidentiality requests and decide whether the licensees will have their information withheld under one of the applicable justifications.

The provision allowing individuals to remove their information from the public record by claiming concern about unwarranted harassment is “most objectionable” and could be used by anyone, said Bob Freeman, executive director of The Committee on Open Government, a state agency tasked with improving government transparency.

“My expectation is that this condition will be the subject of reconsideration,” Freeman said.

Ken Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, said he thought the law requiring the records to be public did not need to be changed.

“What we’ve got here is an overreaction to one newspaper’s judgment – a judgment that many in and out of journalism questioned,” he said

In the weeks following the Sandy Hook school shootings, the New York Journal News published an interactive map displaying the names and addresses of gun permit owners in Westchester and Rockland counties. The paper also tried to publish gun permit owners' information from Putnam county, but the city refused to fulfill the FOIL request. A furor over the newspaper’s decision quickly followed, and people across the country questioned whether the News Journal should have the legal right to obtain and disseminate the information, Freeman said.

“Under the state’s FOI law, the name and address of anyone who owns a licensed gun shall be public record. They clearly had the right to post it, but whether it was wise to do so is another story,” Freeman added.

The new law also calls for the creation of centralized government databases that record permit holder information, all gun and ammunition sales and a list of mentally ill gun owners who have made threats of harming others. Under the new law, these newly created databases are exempt from disclosure under FOIL.

Bunting said he is opposed to the lack of openness the law creates and that not enough thought was put into the measure.

“Most public records ought to be open,” Bunting said. “Unfortunately, most open government laws have restrictions and are ill advised, and I suspect this is another one.”