By Allie Diffendal
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — First Amendment and Second Amendment values jostled yesterday in a First Amendment Center panel discussion on whether state handgun-permit records should be public.
A dispute arose last year when The Commercial Appeal newspaper of Memphis posted the full state database of some 257,000 handgun-permit holders on its Web site.
After many gun owners expressed anger at the inclusion of gun carriers’ addresses and dates of birth, the newspaper took out those parts of the database but kept the rest of the information online. An effort in the Tennessee Senate to close access to the names of people permitted to carry loaded handguns failed in June of this year. A renewed push is expected in 2010.
In yesterday’s 90-minute give-and-take, at the John Seigenthaler Center on the Vanderbilt University campus, Commercial Appeal Editor Chris Peck defended publishing the records as part of an effort to give people accurate information to make informed decisions.
He gave the example of parents who might want to know whether a house their kids visit has a gun in it. Peck also said that his newspaper’s analysis of the data found 70 people in Shelby County, which includes Memphis, who had been issued permits despite being legally prohibited from carrying guns because of their violent records.
But the Second Amendment side of the equation came prepared with its own examples.
John Harris, executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, said many permit holders feared that their being identified publicly was an attempt to intimidate them as gun owners. “This is not a gun issue, but a privacy issue,” Harris said.
Harris said many gun-permit holders don’t want their identities known because they have been victims of domestic abuse or stalking.
Permit holder Richard Archie of Bells, Tenn., said making the data public put him and his wife at risk from gun thieves. A public database, he said, created a “menu” for people looking to steal weapons and should be used for law-enforcement purposes only.
Peck said there was no evidence that criminals were using the information to target gun owners at their homes. Gun thefts tend to be “crimes of opportunity” that occur in break-ins by thieves looking for anything valuable, he said.
The purpose of making the permit data available, Peck said, was not to punish or intimidate gun owners, but to satisfy the public’s the right to know information about an important public issue.
“In an open society people take that info and make of it what they will,” he said.
After a reader commented on a Commercial Appeal story about a shooting, asking whether the assailant had a permit, Peck said an editor replied, “I don’t know, but you can go to our database and look.”
“Accountability and transparency in government is the bottom line on this,” Peck said.
Harris said the kind of government information that should be publicly available should help citizens monitor government operations. Voter-registration databases would fit that bill, he said.
Archie said it was fine that the newspaper had exposed the 70 illegal handgun carriers, but it should have confined itself to publishing their names, not those of legal permit holders.
He said he was one of the people who wrote “some pretty striking letters” when he first saw his name, address and birth date on The Commercial Appeal’s Web site.
The outrage directed at the newspaper and Peck personally was unmatched in his 30 years of journalism, the editor said. He said a gun-rights supporter posted online his name, photograph, a map to his house and pictures of all of his children so that he could “see how it feels.” The newspaper asked for police protection because of the level of threats made after the database went online, Peck said.
The larger issue, said First Amendment Center scholar David L. Hudson Jr., involves the long-time clash between privacy and the First Amendment. Public consciousness of topics such as open gun-permit records has been heightened by the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller, which struck down a broad gun ban as a violation of the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
Allie Diffendal is a senior majoring in political science and American studies at Vanderbilt University.