Revealing the names of individuals who have firearm permits does not invade personal privacy or endanger gun owners, the Illinois public access counselor said in an opinion released this week. An Associated Press reporter requested the names in September 2010 under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act and was denied access by the Illinois State Police.
The State Police argued that releasing the names would be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy and would put the gun owners in danger, therefore making the records exempt from the state FOIA under two different exemptions. The Illinois public access counselor, a part of the state attorney general's office, reviewed the case and disagreed.
"[D]isclosure of the names of [permit holders] and the expiration date of the . . . card cannot be characterized as highly personal or objectionable to the reasonable person."
Additionally, the public access counselor found that the argument that cardholders would be put in danger by releasing their names was speculative because it failed to "satisfy the clear and convincing evidence standard required" by the law for the application of any exemption.
Even if there were some privacy concerns justifying keeping the names secret, the public access counselor found that there was a great public interest in releasing the names to ensure the Illinois State Police were properly enforcing the law when issuing permits. "[E]ven if disclosure of the names and expiration of [permit] owners did constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, this fact is outweighed by the public interest that exists in ensuring the integrity of [the state police]'s database."
For now, the decision is binding, but Collin Hitt of the Illinois Policy Institute said he expects a stay to be issued to keep the names private until the case can be heard in court. "Ultimately, this will be an issue for the courts," he said.
Hitt expressed concern that the opinion could be extended to include names of other citizens who file paperwork with the state, including recipients of food stamps and students at public universities, although he admitted he has not had time to fully examine the opinion to see if there could be possible broader applications of the ruling.
In addition to a possible appeal, there is also a bill in the Illinois House of Representatives to ban the release of permit holders. The day after the public access counselor opinion was released, the bill, H.B. 7, was voted down in committee. However, bill sponsor Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Greenville, said he would raise the issue again. A similar bill in the Illinois Senate, S.B. 27, is in committee.
Josh Sharp, director of government relations at the Illinois Press Association, said his organization lobbied against the bill. "The database should be open," he said. "We don't need to go in and correct the public access counselor every time there's a decision that a group doesn't like."
Sharp feels the bill is a "knee-jerk reaction" to the opinion and he criticized the legislature for undermining the public access counselor, a position that was created about one year ago.
Sharp stressed that that gun owners do not have to fear for their safety. "Don't believe the hype," he said. He added that Illinois residents need to fear for their right to own firearms. "It's not a gun control issue. It's an open government issue," he said.
In the last year, Oregon and Nevada courts have faced similar challenges and found that the names of permit holders must be released. However, both states have bills before their respective legislatures to create an exemption to the state open records laws to keep those names private.
Charles Davis, an associate professor at the University of Missouri and former head of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, said that "every time" there is a court victory on the issue, local legislatures "rush in" to pass a law to conceal the names.
"It's just about the dumbest policy decision in all of mankind," Davis added. "Licensure records are fundamental public records . . . If we don't know who owns guns, then we don't know whether and how the state is licensing access to guns."
The Oregon House of Representatives is considering House Bill 2787, which would effectively overturn the June 2010 decision of the state appellate court, which held names of gun owners were not private under the open records law. The bill is currently before the body's Judiciary Committee.
Last July, the Nevada high court held that while permit applications are private, the names of those actually granted firearm permits are not. Now, the Nevada Assembly is considering Assembly Bill 143, which would make those names private. The bill is currently in committee.
Like the claims of the Illinois State Police, the bills in Oregon and Nevada claim that keeping the names of gun owners private is a matter of safety. There are fears that people could use the list as a means to find victims of domestic abuse and there is also a fear that convicted criminals — ineligible under most laws to purchase firearms — would use the list to find homes in which to steal guns.
Davis is unpersuaded by such arguments, "It doesn't make any sense," he said. "It's a really nice emotional argument but, logically, it falls on its head."
"If you're going to go to a house to rob it, you're going to the one with all the weapons? I don't believe it," he added.
Davis said there is a pressing need to keep a check on the agencies that grant the permits to ensure that laws to prevent access to firearms from those with mental problems or criminal histories are being properly enforced. Davis put forth an example of a person known to be a criminal and have serious mental problems who is also known to own guns. "I have a right to be able to find out if he obtained those weapons through the government or illegally," he said.