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.


Shamash said...

Permits will never stop a criminal in our society.

That's the whole point of being a criminal.

You break laws.

It's what we do AFTER those laws are broken that make a difference.

Punishment for crimes is the only solution.

That's where we've failed.

Anonymous said...

Rick, I'll put this bluntly.

Your paper and every other media outlet in America is now a think tank for political propaganda and because of this, your industry has lost the trust of the public.

You can't be trusted with our names and addresses and we want them kept away from you.

Anonymous said...

I have several issues with this argument.

With all of the rape, child abuses, and sex scandals going on should we make anything of "adult content" purchased public as well. I am more worried about my daughter being sexually abused than shot!!!

People don't break in to steal guns because legal rights are there to obtain them. If you remove all rights to buy guns you will seem the weapons become very hot commodities for those wishing to have them. If a list exists to locate them; guess what happens. ...rightful and law abiding citizens are victimized.

I have yet to see a politician talk about how they intend to take away weapons from criminals; only law abiding citizens. Any infringement, public attack, or more towards those citizens is wrong.

I can't speak against your comments about felons having permits. It's a broken system related to revoking the permits but what's not covered is the legal measures taken to issue them. ...but yes, they should have lost their permits upon the felony conviction!

Citizens have no right to know what I purchase. My neighbors are in no harm. Just like I am in no way obliged to knowledge of what sex websites, adult material/goods, etc my neighbors buy; even at the risk of my children!!

Where we draw the line is a difficult discussion but you are on a very slippery slope!

Wiley Coyote said...

Let's talk about the REAL problem; over zealous liberals and their newspapers who are dying by the day.

The stunt pulled in NY was for two reasons - sell papers and push an agenda.

Gun permits should be public, but the old saying that "the pen is mightier than the sword" to me means that the reckless use of information and the publishing of it, can be just as dangerous as a deranged person with a weapon.

Rick Thames said...

Anonymous 10:42, your distrust comes through loud and clear. So, do you trust the government to grant and revoke gun permits in secrecy? Or would you rather have the right to see what they are doing?

Anonymous said...

Rick, since no one bothers to look up gun permit records except newspapers, you have your answer. Secrecy is what everyone wants. You and your newspaper need to keep your noses out of private citizens' information.

Anonymous said...

Set aside for a moment the handful of journalists who have published wholesale lists of people with gun permits -

Sorry Charlie, no we are not. The liberal media is the enemy in this country you may as well sit back and enjoy it.

Wiley Coyote said...

...Then why don't you publish the names of rape or child abuse victims?

Shouldn't we have the right to see that information?

What about "anonymous sources"?

Where do we draw the line?

Ettolrahc said...

Hey Rick: Try and have a few horrific stories about how people saved their lives by having a gun.

That might be a little more balanced as we are sure you are not trying to promote only certain views.

Anonymous said...

Two reasons for not making the database public:
1. Complete lack of trust in the media, including the Observer. While it may not serve the current editorial staff to publish the names of permit holders, what if a new editor comes in and thinks differently? The public does NOT have a right to know whether I have a gun permit - it does not affect them.

2. There are numerous databases that query this information and publish it for use by creditors, private investigators, etc. They have no need for this information.

Anonymous said...

It took me 9 months to get through the process to obtain a purchase permit, take the concealed carry class, be interviewed by the sheriff's dept. and purchase a handgun. I was finger printed and everything about me was documented. If I was a criminal I could have gone down to Trade and Tryon and had a gun in an hour and the public and the police would be none the wiser. The Sheriff's Dept. said the reason why I wouldn't do that is because I was a "Law Abiding Citizen". No one other than the Sheriff's dept. needs to know I own a gun.

The criminals are the ones we need to know about and disarm.

Anonymous said...

What "trends" are you looking for? Other than knowing sales increased, what could it possibly be? How many white people purchased guns? How many women? What socio-economic group increased the most? This is specious at best. There is no public serving reason to make this data available so you can formulate theories as to why gun sales increased or where. All it takes is one person with the power at the Disturber and an anti-gun bias and this list goes viral. We DO NOT TRUST YOU.

Anonymous said...

We should definitely trust you with our personal information, Rick.

Oh wait, don't you publish the entire database of NC government employee salaries, including names?

Oh wait, don't you publish the entire database of CMS employee salaries, including names? And the 8 surrounding counties?

Yeah, you're trustworthy.

Anonymous said...

As a counterpoint to the majority of comments here, what if there is a sheriff's office refusing to approve permits fairly? Without access to the data, it may be impossible to demonstrate that the only people getting permits in that county are donors to the sheriffs campaign committee. There are a few newspapers still openly practicing journalism; they're not all bad.

Shamash said...

Anon 11:58 wrote:

"I have yet to see a politician talk about how they intend to take away weapons from criminals"

Yep. That's the bigger problem, isn't it?

Our society protects and coddles criminals.

We even allow juvenile felons to "mainstream" back into our schools WITHOUT WARNING PARENTS that their kids may be sitting next to a FELON in the classroom.

How STUPID is that?

We have a sex offender registry (at least down here in SC) and while that supposedly lets me know that there IS a sex offender living just a half-mile from my house (as there is).

But it is also interesting that he was last arrested for FAILING TO REPORT HIS ADDRESS.

So again, where's the pain for him, he's still free?

That's the problem with registrations and laws in general.

Honest, law-abiding citizens will abide by the law.


Again, the problem is letting the criminals roam our streets freely.

Especially the violent criminals.

The problem is PEOPLE, not GUNS.

We need tougher prisons, longer sentences, and lower prison costs so we can afford to keep violent people locked up longer.

Because we sure aren't going to "rehabilitate" them.

Rick Thames said...

Anonymous 7:53 a.m., I'm glad you raised the issue of taxpayer-funded salaries. Yes, we do publish those. That's an example of how we weigh the public's right to know against the potential for harm for the parties involved, and why the answer is different, depending on what is being disclosed. We realize that many government employees would prefer that their salaries not be public record. And we harbor no ill intentions with this policy. But taxpayers have a right to know how their money is spent in all areas of government. I will also add this. More than a few government employees have told us that they discovered unfair pay practices within their ranks by reviewing the salary databases. And more than a few taxpayers have told us that they were incensed at some of the high-end salaries they discovered. These are examples of how transparency generally is a good policy for everyone. To sample the alternative, look no farther than countries that do not follow the principles of a democracy. You won't find any public records databases in Russia or China. That's why we should all be alarmed when our elected officials try to legislate secrecy, even as they think they are helping us. Legislated secrecy always strengthens the hand of government and weakens the hands of its citizens. Always.

Anonymous said...

What has brought us here, Rick, is the First Amendment, Freedom of the Press

What has kept that freedom is the Second Amendment.

End of story

Shamash said...

You know.

Legislated secrecy, eh?

Reminds me of the CMPD decision to remove easy access to the police incident reports.

That way, all police information gets properly filtered by our government for our own protection against our own ignorance.

Yeah, I'm buying that...

Someone is just uncomfortable with the public holding them accountable.

Anonymous said...

"Gun enthusiasts threatening to kill them"??

I like how you take a jab and then ask that we forget that for now. Can we also forget about the criminals who used that list to choose a home to break into? That would be convenient.....the ACTUAL consequential actions of publishing that list.