As a strong supporter of both the First and Second Amendments, I'm finding this a tough call. An Indiana House committee has approved a bill that would keep secret the names of people in a government database of those granted permits to carry guns:
The bill would allow general information about gun permits to be released for journalistic and academic research, but would bar the release of names, addresses and other personal information which had allowed The Star to identify people whom police felt should not have gun permits.
According to this account, the National Rifle Association says 28 states have made gun permits confidential, 12 states treat them as open public records, and 10 states do not grant permits to carry concealed weapons.
About six years ago, The News-Sentinel obtained a copy of the database (available to anyone for $25), and we did a fascinating (to me, anyway) story about the 14,000 Allen County residents licensed to pack heat. It was "I just knew it" fun to read, for example, that those with carry permits included a minister devoted to fighting youth violence and the very liberal, pro-gun control editorial page editor of The Journal Gazette.
But then we announced plans to put the whole database online for anybody to search, and it really hit the fan. We were flooded with phone calls, letters and office visits from outraged gun owners who said we were threating public safety in general and them in particular. We did our weekly poll on the subject and got 2,500 responses, a record for then, and the calls were something like 90 percent against us putting the database online. The two most common themes were that gun thieves would then know just which houses to rob and that people who carried because they feared someone would now be revealed to those very people. Those complaints have a lot of merit. Privacy is a valuable but diminishing commodity in American life, and publishing those names would do damage it. And the whole point of concealed carry, after all, is that nobody knows who is packing and who isn't.
On the other hand, this is government information, and the people have a right to know it. Much public good can come from the fact that journalists have access to it. The current bill, for example, was spurred by stories generated by the Indianapolis Star and the Bloomington Herald-Times using the database. The Star story revealed that State Police had issued permits to people with violent histories, in some cases over the objections of local police. That knowledge is an important contribution to public safety, and the Star would never have been able to uncover it under the provisions of the proposed legislation.
For what it's worth, our editor reconsidered the newspaper's plans based on all the opposition, and we did not put the database online.