From the Spring 2007 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 23.
By Loren Cochran
The posting and subsequent removal of a list of concealed weapons permit carriers in Virginia has sparked great debate from gun rights advocates and open government groups alike.
Christian Trejbal, an editorial writer for The Roanoke (Va.) Times, wrote a piece for Sunshine Week in March that included a link to a database, properly obtained from the state police through Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, that listed the names and home addresses of all 135,000-plus concealed weapons permit holders in the commonwealth.
That’s when, in true Miltonic fashion, all hell broke loose. Angry readers blasted Trejbal and the paper for “having made this information so much more easily accessible to those who might abuse it.” Readers who posted comments on the paper’s Web site, roanoke.com, were particularly offended by Trejbal’s suggestion that the concealed weapons list should be as Web-accessible as is Virginia’s sexual predator registry.
The Times‘ response was decisive and arguably as controversial. The database link was removed from the Web site the day after Trejbal’s column ran.
The controversy surrounding the Times piece didn’t stay within the Roanoke area. Gun owners everywhere expressed their indignation at the “outing” of citizens who were simply exercising their Second Amendment rights.
National media weighed in as well. CNN aired a particularly stinging piece (“How would you like it if your name was made public to everybody in your community just because you happen to have a permit to carry a concealed weapon?”).
The story described a Virginia concealed weapon permit holder and domestic violence survivor who, according to the package, spent “years . . . being careful to make sure that she couldn’t be found, moving around and carefully guarding her whereabouts.”
“I was just so shaken, when I did so much to try to protect where I was, that it was out there,” the woman told CNN.
The story then showed Virginia “parole officer” Hassan Thomas with his wife and baby son. Thomas wondered rhetorically whether the Times was responsible for a recent unwelcome visit to his house by a former parolee. Thomas and other gun owners, the story said, had lost their sense of safety.
At the end of the day, it can hardly be disputed that the column achieved its stated purpose to “reflect on the importance of open government and public records.”
Now, you probably can guess I don’t have an issue with the posting of the database. These are (were) open records under Virginia law, and the press has the right to publish public records.
And I certainly don’t have a problem with the outrage expressed by concealed weapon permit holders, or their brethren advocating privacy rights for gun owners. By all means, if you don’t agree with the opinion of an editorial writer, exercise your free speech rights and let him or her know. That’s especially true for the local folks who actually read The Roanoke Times.
And I am not bothered by the reaction of those permit holders featured by CNN — although I do find it a little bit odd that the woman who suffered truly horrific abuse at the hands of her ex-husband and said she spent so much time making sure she couldn’t be found was actively stumping for former U.S. Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) back in November. She thanked Allen for abolishing parole for violent felons — including her ex-husband, who she said was serving a 36-year sentence — at large campaign rallies.
I was equally interested in parole officer Thomas’ situation. It turns out that Thomas works not for the Virginia Department of Corrections, but instead for the Department of Juvenile Justice. The public affairs officer for Juvenile Justice says no one in the department carries a gun on the job, including Thomas. The spokesman says the inference that Thomas needed a weapon at work (which included a sequence of shots with Thomas strapping on his gun, dressed in slacks and a tie and driving off for the day) was just a misunderstanding by CNN.
And finally, you won’t find me quibbling with the Times‘ editorial decision to remove the database. A responsive local paper, sensitive to its readers’ concerns, makes perfect sense.
However, I do have real concerns about one aspect of this entire affair. In an advisory opinion, issued on April 6 at the request of a state lawmaker, state Attorney General Bob McDonnell declared this previously public information now “discretionary” in nature, and said the state police could deny the list as a tool releasable only to law enforcement for “investigative purposes.”
McDonnell’s manufactured logic is painful, if not downright insulting.
“[S]ince such list of permittees will include names and other personal information of crime victims and witnesses, it is my opinion that the identities and locations of these persons should be protected in the interest of public safety,” McDonnell wrote. Because crime victims’ and witnesses’ personal information can also be found on election records, land assessments, marriage announcements, pet licenses and even the phone book, if the attorney general’s opinion carries the day, the citizens of Virginia may find themselves in an “information-free” zone in the very near future.
And as expected, the state police swooped in on cue and declared the database officially off limits.
The state legislature is poised to weigh in on the issue soon, with all indications that the list will be exempted from Virginia’s open records law.
Perhaps the most interesting observation regarding the opinion was made by a blogger and concealed-carry proponent from Richmond, Va., who accurately observed, “The one bad side is that we ourselves won’t have access to this list either for mailings, political research etc. and neither will the Virginia Citizens Defense League which has been the primary fighter in this battle.”
Point well taken, sir. That is precisely the price we all pay opting for secrecy over open government.