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Reporting on gun permit data

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  1. Freedom of Information
AP Photo by Rick Bowmer  Mathew Chappell, center, carries his Ruger Mini 30, as he speaks with a reporter, right,…

AP Photo by Rick Bowmer 

Mathew Chappell, center, carries his Ruger Mini 30, as he speaks with a reporter, right, following a gun bill hearing at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City.

Since the tragic elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., news organizations across the country have tried to figure out how to report on the issue of gun control in their communities. Many have turned to gun permit records for their reports.

And when — or if — they get the data, some organizations aren’t exactly sure what to do with it. For example, The Journal News in White Plains, New York, dumped the data in bulk on its website and received significant backlash, prompting stricter records legislation in the state and leading the newspaper to eventually take the report down.

But a number of journalists have reported on gun issues in the past. The trick, they said, is to report on the trends behind the numbers.

For example, Journal Gazette (Fort Wayne, Ind.), reporter Jeff Wiehe’s May 2012 article, “Requests for silencers on rise,” discussed the increase in requests for permits, silencers and automatic weapons after Indiana restricted what gun permit information was available to the public. Wiehe was able to access the number of permit requests but the details on who was registered were sealed.

Mark Alesia, a reporter with The Indianapolis Star, thinks the legislation is in place because of a story he worked on in 2009. Alesia was part of an investigative team that compared gun permit holders to felons in two Indiana counties.

“It was just a hunch,” Alesia said. “We looked at Indiana code and all these laws about what gun permit holders were allowed to do, and we wanted to see if the state law was being followed.”

The team found that more than 450 felons were illegally granted concealed carry permits by the State Police. Alesia said the story took at least three months to piece together and the team had to deal with many logistical issues.

“A lot of it was computer-assisted reporting,” Alesia said. “We had to figure out what gun permit data was out there and how we could cross check that with the crime data to isolate instances where people might have done something that should have prevented them from getting a permit.”

Alesia monitored gun owners’ websites after the article was published to see how they would react to the story and said he was surprised with the response.

“I actually took a little pride in some of the messages that said it was a good, balanced article,” Alesia said. “We took our time; it wasn’t just an anti-gun screed. It was an issue we took the time to explore.”

State legislators also reacted to the article, but not in the way the Alesia had hoped.

“They made it more restrictive to get gun data instead of being concerned about whether their current laws were being followed,” he said.

Both Alesia and Wiehe attribute the success of their articles to reporting carefully and thoroughly on the data.

“We had a real agenda to look at whether gun permits were being issued contrary to Indiana state law,” Alesia said. “We were gathering this information for the purpose of exploring a specific issue. We published a list of examples digitally. We took our time, we took everything to the state police and sat down with them for a long time and discussed specific instances.”

“Most of the conversations I had with my editors was about if there was an actual trend and whether the numbers supported it,” Wiehe said.

The New York Times investigative reporter Michael Luo’s efforts in 2011 to obtain gun permit data in Oregon led legislators in that state to restrict public access to the records. Luo sought to compare licensing practices in Oregon and North Carolina, as they were two states where the data was public.

Luo said North Carolina officials processed his request quickly, providing him with an electronic database a few days after he made the request. Oregon, on the other hand, never provided him with records.

Despite the fact that at the time of Luo’s request, gun permit records were considered public in Oregon, word of his request got back to legislators. And as state officials delayed processing his request, state lawmakers introduced legislation that ultimately became law prohibiting the release of gun permit data, thereby foreclosing the release of the records to Luo.

Luo focused on North Carolina, where he compared the individuals listed in the gun permit database with criminal history records he had obtained from the state’s criminal courts. The result of Luo’s analysis demonstrated that of 240,000 people licensed to carry concealed weapons, roughly 10 percent had been convicted of felonies or misdemeanors and still had licenses to carry concealed weapons. Luo’s reporting also showed that in about half of the felony convictions, officials failed to revoke or suspend the individual’s permit.

“It was a small percentage of concealed handgun permit holders who committed crimes, but it’s a sizable number,” Luo said. “It’s really up to readers to decide whether it’s an alarming number.”

The story also pointed out gaps in the concealed gun permit oversight that allowed individuals who were publicly convicted and in some cases sent to prison to still retain their permits. Luo said he hoped the story raised awareness about the issue and pushed state officials to tighten up their gun permit revocation policies.

After the story ran, local media followed up on the story and several local sheriffs said that the permit revocation issue was problematic. This was so because although individual sheriffs issue the gun permit licenses, they did not have a centralized way to regularly check to see if licenses should be revoked in the case of a criminal conviction.

Other news organizations have elected to publish gun permit data. For example, in 2007, columnist Christian Trejbal tried to show the importance of public records by posting a database of local concealed handgun permit holders on The Roanoke Times’ website.

However, less than 24 hours later, the newspaper took down the database because the list contained names that should not have been released due to safety concerns, according to a statement issued by the paper. The database ignited a firestorm of controversy within the community, and the state passed a law making the central database of permit holders confidential. Permit records maintained at the county level, where the permits are issued, remained public.

However, a bill introduced in the state legislature this year would make those records confidential, too.