Just observing the recent concealed-carry discussion on the Missourian Web site has been exhausting. Little seems to make people so emotional, so inclined to overuse personal address and capital letters, as guns. Although some commentators remain level-headed, many more write with the dogmatic, draining tone of someone who is leading up to a healthy scoff and sarcastic “Einstein.”
Online, the histrionic arguments about guns might be tiresome at worst, but they have more serious consequences in the real world. Justifications that are more emotional than rational can drive laws straight through state legislatures. And while sometimes that might be innocuous or even good, a recent increase in primarily emotion-based bills related to concealed-carry information threatens to have some not-so-good repercussions.
According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, seven states have recently proposed bills that would revoke concealed-carry permits’ status as public records. One claim driving the bills is that making the information accessible through freedom of information requests violates the privacy of permit holders, but the need for the permits to be private is rarely sourced or justified and falls short in the face of practical needs that are met by making the records public.
A lobbyist for the NRA used this argument when asked about the proliferation of these bills. He asserted that those who believe the information should be public “want to put a scarlet letter” on the permit holders. Others have gone so far as to assert that making the information public is essentially equating concealed carriers to sex offenders, given that the latter are required to register with local law enforcement officials and often have their names, crimes and photos published on a Web site.
While permit owners might have cause to be annoyed, given that it makes it harder for them to secretly carry guns when those permits aren’t secret too, it is wrong to assert that people want the information to be made public simply so they can treat concealed carriers as pedophilic Hester Prynnes. There might be some bitter, anti-gun rogue out there who takes joy in permit owners’ angst, but most people want access to the information so that government oversight can be performed by the public and the press.
In an ideal world, the permit-issuance process would be perfect, but it unfortunately isn’t. Last year, an investigative team from a Tennessee news station cross-referenced a list of permit owners with a database of convicted felons; they found that permits had been issued to dozens of criminals (including a felon who shot a man in the chest during an argument), despite supposedly stringent state laws requiring fingerprinting and background checks for applicants. Without access to the names, these flaws couldn’t be exposed.
Another emotional claim being used to support the bills is that permit owners will be targeted for robbery if their names are made public, presumably because robbers would highly value the guns. It’s understandable to be nervous about personal information being accessible these days, for the sake of worries about identity theft if nothing else, but the burglary argument is an unreasonable manifestation of that nervousness; wouldn’t robbers be more likely to avoid houses where they might be shot?
Robberies aside, there are some people who have legitimate reason to fear the release of their information. In an opinion justifying the passage of a bill that made records secret in Virginia, the attorney general explained that the complete list of permit owners would include victims of domestic abuse, crime witnesses and other especially at-risk individuals; revoking access to the records was for their sake, he said, “in the interest of public safety.”
However, there’s no reason that specific exemptions couldn’t be made for people who have a particular reason to fear they might be harmed. To legislate for everyone based on those relatively isolated cases is to sacrifice government oversight for the sake of an emotive exception, one that could (and should) be accounted for.
Also emotionally contested are searchable databases of permit owners that have been put together by newspapers such as the Commercial Appeal. Using these, people can enter names or areas and find out who owns a permit rather than going through the process of using a freedom of information request. Although this might make permit owners feel slightly more exposed, it does allow people to regularly and easily find out if their baby sitters or neighbors or employees might be carrying guns. Such databases also facilitate oversight, given that they make comprehensive research more feasible for the ever-dwindling number of journalists.
In an opinion article written after people objected to the Commercial Appeal’s database, the editor said this: “Neither logic nor common sense is carrying the day on this issue. It's emotion. After listening to dozens of phone calls, it seems that the issue, for them, boils down to a simple core equation: I have a constitutional right to possess a firearm; any effort to infringe on that right will be opposed.” But protecting rights is not about absolutes for individuals; it’s about balance for everyone, and sometimes that balance requires emotional wants or worries to make room for more practical needs.
Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.