Public access to gun records enters debate
North Carolina lawmakers began debating Thursday whether there's a legitimate interest in the public having access to names, addresses and other identifying information of people purchasing pistols or who've obtained concealed weapons permits.
A bill filed by more than a dozen Senate Republicans would make identifying information about people who have obtained the permits confidential unless the records are opened through a court order. The records are currently public records, meaning anyone can access them.
"Are we going to protect the private information of people who are law-abiding citizens who have chosen to buy a handgun?" asked Sen. Warren Daniel, R-Burke, a co-sponsor of the bill. The measure wasn't voted upon after state newspapers and Democrats raised objections, saying the bill was a solution searching for a problem that doesn't exist.
"I'm just trying to figure what we're trying to resolve," said Sen. Malcolm Graham, D-Mecklenburg. "I just don't know what we're trying to fix."
Proponents of making the information confidential say the data are a hot bed for potential thieves. Knowing which residents hold permits makes it easier for robbers to steal weapons, said Sen. Stan Bingham, R-Davidson, the bill's primary sponsor. Criminals can also target residents who don't have permits, according to legislators and lobbyists.
"If I own a gun, I don't want anybody to know whether I do or not," said Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, another bill sponsor. "I want them to be worried about that when thinking about doing evil in my house."
Many sheriffs have been flooded with requests from the public for the permit information after a New York newspaper in December posted online maps to allow viewers to see the names and addresses of pistol and revolver permit holders in two counties, said Gregg Stahl, a lobbyist from the North Carolina Sheriffs Association. Other state legislatures such as the one in Arkansas are considering similar legislation.
A Raleigh television station also posted information last year about concealed weapon permit holders in its viewing area, but only identified them by their street.
Stahl said the new requests to local sheriffs aren't coming from media outlets that traditionally make requests.
There were 308,046 active concealed handgun permits in North Carolina as of Feb. 1, according to the state Department of Justice.
"If you're a smart person wanting to look at houses to break into, you got to the sheriff's office and ask for a copy of the records," Stahl said.
Democrats questioned the effectiveness of making the records confidential, since they don't apply to people who own rifles and other long-barreled guns, which don't require permits. They said there's no empirical data to suggest that criminals are breaking into houses based on what they find in the records.
John Bussian, an attorney with the North Carolina Press Association, called the measure "another government records secrecy bill" designed to make confidential records that have always been made public. Data in other states have been used by newspapers to explain the flow of handguns into a region.
"Until we hear there's some real need for this, we would argue that the public's right to know ought to be preserved and the access to these records maintained," Bussian told the committee. Bingham, who runs a weekly newspaper and is an association member, said he disagreed with Bussian.
Gun enthusiasts and dealers in North Carolina said they backed the measure. During the concealed weapons permit debate at the General Assembly two decades ago, no one ever believed the records would be made as public as they have been, said Henri McClees, representing the North Carolina Firearms Dealers Group.
"We believe that what has happened in the culture has had a chilling effect on the Second Amendment," McClees said.
The Department of Justice doesn't keep track of the number of pistol purchase permits issued by sheriffs. People with concealed weapon permits don't have to apply separately for a purchase permit.