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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: You could be a criminal for publishing a name

By Tom Warhover
May 27, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

Dear Reader,

If you own a gun, and I publish your name, I’ve committed a crime. You don’t even need to own one. Just apply for a license or a permit to own or carry a gun.

Or I would violate the law if Gov. Jay Nixon signs the bill passed by our legislature.

Imagine a sports reporter covering Mizzou football. If the quarterback held a gun permit, the reporter would have to write: “Anonymous dropped back and threw a bullet into the endzone for a touchdown.”

You couldn't publish the names of legislators or city officials, university administrators or even members of the Kiwanis Club if they happened to own a gun or an application to own one.

Much has been written about the bill, passed and sent to the governor, invalidating any federal laws that impinge on a person’s constitutional rights to buy, sell or otherwise bear arms.

Little has been said about trampling the First Amendment along the way.

Rep. Doug Funderburk, R-St. Charles, sponsored HB 436. A section of the bill, known as “the Second Amendment Protection Act,” says:

“No person or entity shall publish the name, address, or other identifying information of any individual who owns a firearm or who is an applicant for or holder of any license, certificate, permit, or endorsement which allows such individual to own, acquire, possess, or carry a firearm.”

So let’s take a recent article and apply our General Assembly’s wisdom to it.

On May 15, Missourian reporters Jon McClure and Joe Vozzelli Jr. published the best analysis I’ve read, here or in other newspapers, of the state attorney general’s annual report on racial disparities in traffic policing.

The issue is complex. In addition to sophisticated data analysis, the reporters talked to police officers and Columbia’s police chief, other city officials, community activists and experts on crime reporting. Along with the story were photos by Jaime Henry-White of two armed police officers as they walked their beat.

We can assume that, at minimum, the officers are gun owners or permit holders. It’s not a question reporters routinely ask unless working on a story about gun ownership.

If this bill were already law, the reporters would have needed to find out who owns guns and avoid publishing their names. Otherwise, McClure, Vozzelli and Henry-White would have committed a Class A misdemeanor.

Yep. You could run afoul of the law (up to $1,000 fine) for publishing a name.

The section of this bill is aimed at the press. Shortly after the killings of schoolchildren in Newton, Conn., the Journal News in White Plains, N.Y., published an interactive map of the names and addresses of thousands of gun permit holders in its circulation. The uproar that followed, including death threats to the editor, eventually prompted the paper to take the map down.

But don’t think you’re safe just because you’re not a journalist. Most of you publish, all the time.

The bill defines publishing as “any printed or electronic form for distribution or sale.” Is your Facebook page public? Did you tweet the name of a gun holder today? Watch out.

Now, you might be thinking, well, the lawmakers in Jefferson City only intended to stop news media from publishing lists of gun permit holders. If so, legislators were in need of an editor because the bill as written takes a broader whack at the First Amendment protections of free speech and free press.

The Missouri Press Association has asked the governor to veto the bill. The association instead pushed for SB 75, sponsored by Sen. Dan Brown, R-Rolla, to close to the public any gun owner lists or permit records. (Sheriff’s department concealed carry permit lists are already sealed, and they have been for years.)

I suppose the association considers it the lesser of two evils. At least Brown’s bill, unlike Funderburk’s, would avoid creating prior restraint laws against speech. Both are on the governor's desk.

Not everyone agrees with prohibiting the publication of permit holder lists. Most fans of the First recognize, however, that constitutional protections aren’t absolute.

They are worth fighting for.