N.Y. gun law turns public records private

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Gun control and the Second Amendment are at the heart of an intense national debate these days, but the clash is also taking a toll on access to public information.

Yesterday the New York State Legislature passed tough new gun-control laws, while at the same time giving members of the public wide latitude to keep their gun-permit records out of public view.

The public-records measure came in response to the map and article published by the Journal News of suburban New York showing the distribution of pistol permits and the address of each permit owner in Westchester and Rockland counties. A national controversy ensued and many gun owners called for new laws limiting access to permit records.

The Journal News report prompted important questions. Does the revelation that a specific home has a gun permit make that residence more likely to be burglarized? Or does public awareness that a home owner may be armed actually minimize the likelihood of a burglary? Is there a public interest in keeping all citizens informed about who has guns in their neighborhoods?

It appears that New York’s legislators had no interest in finding out. Instead, less than a month after the article by the Journal News, they’ve essentially transformed public information into secret records.

Under the new law, citizens who want to keep their permit records out of sight will check a box on their application forms. They can seek an exemption if they’re police officers or victims of domestic violence, or if they simply assert that they’re worried about “unwanted harassment.” The latter criterion would apply to anyone who believes others might disapprove of their gun ownership. That could make most of these public records private.

From the moment the Journal News published this information, it was apparent that there would be efforts to restrict access to gun-permit records. The state Legislature is the place for that debate, though in this case we saw a rush to judgment based on a single newspaper’s reporting.

Should gun-permit records be accessible by the public in New York? The state Legislature’s answer: Yes – and no.

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