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Utah's Right to Know
Donald Meyers
Donald W. Meyers writes about open-government issues for The Salt Lake Tribune. He is also the site manager of utahsright.com, the Tribune's online database of public records. He is also a member of the Society of Professional Journalists' National Freedom of Information Committee and sits on the board of directors of the Utah Foundation for Open Government.

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New York lawmakers want gun permits private after newspaper names pistol owners

In the wake of the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., two New York legislators are proposing a bill to control information about gun owners.

New York State Sen. Greg Ball, R-Patterson, and Assemblyman Steve Katz, R-Yorktown, want to amend the state’s Freedom of Information Law after the Journal News published a story on pistol permits issued in Rockland and Westchester counties. The report also included an interactive map showing the names and addresses of permit holders, although the map could not be searched by name.

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The permit data is a public record in New York, and the paper obtained the data by filing public records requests.

The article and map provoked outrage, with bloggers posting names and addresses for the newspaper’s staff and someone sending a powder-filled envelope to the paper’s office. Some critics say the article stigmatized gun owners, while others claimed it created a map for criminals who are either looking for homes with guns to steal or homes where the owners don’t have guns.

"The Journal News has really come up with the perfect map for the perpetrators and for the stalkers and for the criminals," Katz said in a Journal News article. "They have yet to give us a cogent reason why, except for the reason that they can. I am sorry — that is not acceptable."

The map only shows people who own registered handguns —pistols and revolvers. New York residents do not need permits for rifles or shotguns, so a burglar looking for a defenseless house may be fatally disappointed.

And in Putnam County, New York, where the paper has a request for permit information pending, the county clerk has announced that he will not fill the request, even though he is required by law to do so.

"It’s really clear-cut," Diane Kennedy, president of the New York News Publishers Association, said in an Associated Press story. "The existing law doesn’t have exemptions in it. It says the information is subject [to the open records law]."

While some can debate the journalistic merits of disclosing the permit information, gutting a public-records law may not be the right solution. In Utah, the Government Records Access and Management Act’s declaration that names of concealed weapons permit holders is protected from public disclosure creates its own, unintended problems.

When Mark Vreeland pleaded no contest to impersonating a police officer, the self-described neighborhood activist said the conviction would not cost him his concealed-carry permit, even though in court he said he almost drew the gun on the BYU student he pulled over and grilled about his immigration status. When I attempted to verify that with the Department of Public Safety, not only could I not be told whether Vreeland’s permit was yanked, I couldn’t even be told if Vreeland had one.



Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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