Portions of gun license applications open, Pennsylvania appeals court rules
PENNSYLVANIA — The public has a limited right to learn about information on firearm license applications, a Pennsylvania appellate court ruled in early November.
Under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Act, an applicant’s name, race, reason for requesting the license, personal references and answers to background questions are matters of public record, according to the decision by the Commonwealth Court in Pittsburgh.
The background questions pertain to the licensee’s character and reputation, record of arrest and convictions, mental health history, drug and alcohol abuse history, prior firearms licenses, citizenship, military history and fugitive status.
Yet a licensee’s home address and telephone and social security number are protected from disclosure, the court said. Release would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy outweighing any public benefit derived from disclosure, so the information is protected by the personal security exception to the act.
Earlier decisions by the court refused to recognize personal privacy considerations in determining whether information is subject to public disclosure under the act. The new balancing test pitting privacy against public interests may make it more difficult to gain access to documents once presumptively public.
The case stems from a request for handgun license information by a reporter from the Morning News in Erie in March 1992. The sheriff of Erie County, Robert N. Michel, denied the reporter’s request, claiming the records were exempt from disclosure under the investigation and personal security exemptions to the public records law.
The Times Publishing Co. filed suit against the sheriff in the court of Common Pleas in Erie in April 1992. The trial court granted partial access to the applications in June.
The Times Publishing argued for full access to the information and is considering an appeal to the state Supreme Court.
(Times Publishing Co. v. Michel; Media Counsel: Craig A. Markham, Erie)