Saturday, March 2, 2013

Gun permits: We should handle with care, but keep them public records

Set aside for a moment the handful of journalists who have published wholesale lists of people with gun permits and the handful of gun enthusiasts who have threatened to kill them.

I’d like to talk to the rest of you, regardless of how you feel about guns.

First, let’s acknowledge what brought us here. Our nation continues to react to a horrific event. A deranged gunman walked into an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., just before Christmas and killed 26 people, including 20 children.

That massacre set off unprecedented demands for new forms of gun control, followed by record sales of guns. Journalists everywhere set out to cover these developments and, in the process, some turned their attention to gun permits.

Gun permits have been public records in North Carolina for decades. They are among hundreds of types of public records that the Charlotte Observer uses to research specific stories.

We were doing research earlier this year when we requested and received two databases from local and state authorities. In response to our public records requests, the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Department provided a digitized list of all handgun permits it has issued. The State Bureau of Investigation provided a similarly fashioned list of permits issued statewide for carrying a concealed firearm.

We requested these databases to help us explain trends tied to the recent surge in gun sales. We have never considered publishing the complete lists because we’ve found no compelling journalistic reason to do so.

That may disappoint some who think it should be enough that the permits are public record. But the Observer, like the vast majority of newspapers, makes choices like this every day. We constantly balance the public’s right to know against the potential harm that could result from disclosure.

We draw hard lines when safety and well being are in question. For instance, the names of rape victims are public record, but we withhold them. We withhold names of children accused of juvenile crimes. We use public records to provide you reports of crime in your neighborhood, but we withhold home addresses.

Does widespread knowledge of the identities and addresses of gun owners encourage break-ins, as some suggest? It’s a debatable question. A veteran burglary detective with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police told me Friday that he has never seen anyone break into a home solely to steal weapons.

But many people with permits obviously are worried about their security. I’ve also read of serious concerns for permit holders who are battered spouses. Consider people who victims of stalkers. The point is, people have many reasons to arm themselves legally, and in some cases widely publicizing identities and addresses potentially could lead to harm.

But there is also real danger in closing these records to the public, as is now proposed in the state legislature.

Your sheriff has the sensitive task of determining who deserves a permit and who doesn’t. To close the records is to eliminate all oversight for that process. No agency checks behind the sheriff to see that permits are issued fairly or responsibly. The Cherokee Scout newspaper said it sought permit records because of a tip questioning the fairness applied to permitting in Cherokee County. The sheriff refused to release the information. (Read more about this on Page 1A today.)

In 2011, The New York Times obtained the same database we recently received from the SBI. It checked those names against five years of crime data and found that more than 2,300 people issued concealed weapons permits in North Carolina had been convicted of felonies or misdemeanors (excluding traffic-related crimes). More than 200 of those crimes were gun-related, and at least 10 involved murder or manslaughter.

“In about half of the felony convictions, the authorities failed to revoke or suspend the holder’s permit, including for cases of murder, rape and kidnapping,” wrote New York Times reporter Michael Luo.

This included a man jailed for terrorizing his estranged wife and daughter with a pair of guns, and then shooting at their house while they and a sheriff’s deputy were inside.

“That’s crazy, absolutely crazy,” the man’s wife said when told her husband was most likely still qualified to buy a gun at any store in the state.

His permit was revoked after the newspaper notified the Sheriff’s Office of his actions.

We are a nation of self-governing people. But we can only govern as far as we can see. The permitting of firearms is too important a process to all citizens to now be placed in a blind trust.

Reach Rick Thames at, and Phone: 704-358-5001.