Keep Gun Records Open

If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. That is good advice, especially when West Virginia legislators are debating a bill aimed at a non-problem – but with the potential to increase government officials’ ability to operate in secrecy.

Don’t we have enough of that already?

A bill in the state Senate would seal records of people seeking and receiving permits to carry concealed firearms. No one other than law enforcement personnel would have access to information about applicants.

If the bill is enacted, it would grant a new exemption from the Freedom of Information Act, which requires that nearly all documents in state and local governments be accessible to the public. Approval of SB 198 would remind West Virginians that many government officials today do not agree with a critical line in the FOI Act, stating that, “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.”

Proponents of the bill claim it is needed to safeguard the privacy of people who request concealed carry permits. As is the case with similar bills in other states, it appears the proposal was prompted by a New York state newspaper’s action in late 2012, in publishing information on every gun permit holder in two counties.

To our knowledge, no West Virginia newspaper has ever done anything like that. And remember, under current law, both the press and public already have access to the permit lists.

So SB 198 is all about a problem gun owners don’t have in West Virginia.

On the other hand, enactment of the bill could create a problem.

Why should the press have access to gun permit records? For the same reason thoughtful state leaders years ago gave journalists and the public access to other government documents – most of which we never publish. Unfettered ability to view government records allows us to check up on how officials handle the public’s business.

What would happen if SB 198 becomes law and a newspaper is tipped off to a sheriff who issues gun permits to cronies who are not, perhaps because of involvement in crimes such as drug trafficking, eligible for them? SB 198 would prevent us from even checking up on that.

Think it couldn’t happen? Come on, now. This is West Virginia. It can happen.

Making SB 198 law would open West Virginians to more problems than it would solve. Legislators should holster the bill – not approve it first and ask questions later.