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Columbia Missourian

GEORGE KENNEDY: Is Sen. Schaefer playing politics or policy?

By George Kennedy
April 26, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

Our government at all levels knows a great deal about us. The feds know my middle name, my date of birth, my address, my income, my blood type, my foreign travel, my military training, my religion, even – and especially – that most closely guarded identifier of all: my Social Security number.

Washington probably knows that stuff about you, too. And I may have left out a few things.

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So what’s the big deal about permits to carry a concealed weapon? That’s information that could be important, maybe vital, to law enforcement agencies and Homeland Security, isn’t it?

At least two groups of Americans seem to think the most private of all personal information is whether I’m likely to have a pistol in my pocket.

One of those groups is the crowd that sees Washington not as our nation’s capital but as our enemy, which we must be prepared at all times to resist and defy.

The other is composed of ambitious Republican politicians. There’s some overlap, of course.

That brings me to our state senator, Kurt Schaefer.

Sen. Schaefer is engaged in a vendetta — he prefers to call it an investigation — against the state Revenue Department after the Highway Patrol obtained and then shared with a federal investigator the state’s newly created computer file of driver’s licenses, which include a special endorsement if you have a concealed carry permit.

He has cut the budgets for the offending agencies, as a negotiating tactic, he says.

He’s also conducting a series of “hearings” around the state, ostensibly to solicit public reaction to this outrage. Rudi Keller of the Columbia Daily Tribune captured the flavor of one of those sessions last week. A woman had the temerity to tell the truth about the National Rifle Association. A fellow citizen took her to task:

“Lady, you are going against the Constitution for what you are saying, and that makes you a damn traitor,” he said.

If Sen. Schaefer came to her defense, Rudi didn’t mention it. He did mention that the other legislators present were all Republicans and that the event was publicized by the NRA.

I talked with Sen. Schaefer on Wednesday. Is all this politics, I asked. “Not at all,” he replied. He went on to explain that only recently has the driver’s license division been scanning and keeping the information you provide to get or renew your license, as well as those concealed carry endorsements. The change didn’t go through the usual rule-making process, he said.

He agreed that government agencies already have a vast amount of our personal information, but he argued that this takes the invasion of privacy to a new level. He sees a possibility of data theft, and he suspects the information would be sold at some point. As to the privacy issue, “That bothers some people; it doesn’t bother other people,” he said.

“The public has to be able to weigh in on this.”

According to Project Vote Smart, a nonpartisan organization, Sen. Schaefer has a 92 percent favorability rating from the NRA. If he succeeds in getting the voters to approve his proposed amendment to the state constitution that would declare Second Amendment rights to be “inalienable,” that might go up.

Back in January, when President Barack Obama announced some modest steps toward gun control, Sen. Schaefer was quoted in the Tribune as saying that resisters to those steps have “a myriad of options from a lawsuit to nullification.”

The latter option, you may recall, was tried a while back. I would have thought the Civil War settled the issue.

In a page 1 analysis in Monday’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Elizabeth Crisp described Sen. Schaefer as one of the “rising stars among the GOP ranks.” She quoted a political scientist as speculating that guns and privacy are better issues for such stars to talk about than Medicaid expansion, which is supported by many traditional Republican allies, such as the state Chamber of Commerce.

Sen. Schaefer chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, which applied the death blow to Medicaid expansion recently by drafting a budget that doesn’t mention it.

I take Sen. Schaefer at his word that he’s grappling with policy and not playing politics.

But if a rising star, facing term limits in the legislature, were to be solidifying his conservative credentials and raising his statewide visibility, wouldn’t the activity look a lot like this?

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.