The Ohio Free Press, an independent online news source run by liberty-minded citizens, has its sights fixed on setting the record straight and is taking aim squarely at one newspaper’s editor.
Two and a half years ago, when readers of the Sandusky Register in Ohio opened the paper on June 25, 2007, many were shocked to find their name, age and county of residence published alongside those of nearly 2,700 other law-abiding private citizens. At the top of the page read only the title, “Sandusky County Concealed Carry List“, accompanied by a menacing graphic with the words “Conceal Carry: Who Needs to Know?” cunningly framed around a gun’s scope. While the page offered no other content or context whatsoever, the lack of such more than set the tone. It may as well have been headlined, “Hey – Fear These Scary Gun-Toting People.”
I spoke with Brian Walker at the Ohio Free Press. He says they wanted to know – without any sort of other context around it, what would have compelled the Register‘s managing editor, Matt Westerhold, to publicly disclose this list of everyone in the area who just happens to have a license to carry a concealed handgun. And why, all this time later, are the pages still online, without any sort of explanation for publishing the list printed alongside of it?
But when they asked him, Mr. Westerhold, after first getting another reporter into the room to get on speakerphone with him, replied bluntly, “Absolutely no comment.”
And that was the end of it.
In Ohio, such information is considered confidential and not generally meant to be of the public record. The statute reads in part that “no person shall release or otherwise disseminate records that are confidential under this division unless required to do so pursuant to a court order.” That would otherwise imply that it is against the law to publish it in your newspaper. But in Ohio, language now known as the “media access loophole”, found in Ohio Code 29, Chapter 2923.129 Immunity under section (B)(2)(a), was ambiguous enough to provide the newspaper with a way around the law. That portion of the statute provides that a journalist is permitted to make a written request to a sheriff to view the information, and indicates that the request shall state that disclosure of the information sought would be in the public interest. It further states that “the journalist shall not copy the name, county of residence, or date of birth of each person…”
The provision was intended for instances where a single record might be pertinent to review as check and balance, such as in the aftermath of an actual shooting occurrence, or to verify that training is being properly conducted. As it turned out, the words “shall not copy” apparently aren’t clear or strong enough to exclude a journalist from writing down every one of the records in his notes, or from speaking them into a recording device.
And with that, Mr. Westerhold seized upon that last bit of the language to justify publishing all 2,600 plus records. In the name of public interest and government transparency, of course.
In a follow-up editorial he published only two days later, “It’s about the secrets, not about the gun owners“, Westerhold insisted the newspaper was “taking a stand against government secrecy.” Somehow, the editor felt that the local government trying to protect the privacy, security and Second Amendment rights of its citizens was being secretive.
Many local residents, citizen activists, associations and business owners were outraged and wrote letters to the editor. Others spoke out and tried to convey to Westerhold the dangerous consequences of his actions. As National Rifle Association spokeswoman Ashley Varner explained, newspapers that publish this information are putting innocent people at unnecessary risk.
There are women who are hiding from abusive husbands or boyfriends. These are single women who may be afraid of stalkers, people who have been attacked previously and are threatened with repeat attacks…People with licenses are the most law-abiding citizens in our country. Less than 2 percent are involved in criminal activity. Criminals do not go through background checks to obtain guns.
And even Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, a Democrat, explained at the time,
Knowledge of who possesses a concealed carry permit may put permit holders at risk of theft attempts,” according to a reply from Strickland’s office to questions about the secrecy provision…(It) may also put those who are not permit holders in greater danger because criminals could know they are not carrying a weapon to defend themselves.
In several follow-ups on the matter, groups like the Buckeye Firearms Association doggedly went after Westerhold, challenging his blatant abuse of his current and former positions with newspapers to openly promote his own anti-concealed-carry agenda. The organization continued on with some creative investigatory work of its own that produced posts such as “It’s About Privacy (& the Sandusky Register Secretly Employing Sex Offenders)” and one in which they published a host of public record information about Mr. Westerhold himself, including his home address, his mortgage financing information, a photo of his house and the car he drives, and information containing a speeding violation. (That action in particular even caught the attention and won the praise of Rush Limbaugh).
Most gun owners, while reluctant, expect a certain level of minimal imposition that makes their permit information publicly available to law enforcement officials in the event of a public safety or security issue, provided there are strict controls on how the information is used and assurances that it will be protected. But the general, blanket publication of this type of information in the media is an entirely different story altogether and is hotly objected, not just by gun advocates, but by advocates for victims of domestic violence, by many law enforcement and public safety officials, and others.
This issue raises very rational objections. Aside from the obvious – these are law abiding citizens who have a Second Amendment right to carry a gun and have gone through the proper registration process to carry it on their persons and in their homes – there are other reasons for privacy concerns. Victims of crime and domestic violence take extra precautions to protect their privacy, and some are likely to be carrying a gun. It’s dangerous to publish any information that would tip off abusers to their victims’ locations, much less their armed status. Others, such as crime witnesses and law enforcement officers are also put at risk when their information is exposed. And citizens of course are put at risk of being burglarized by those seeking to steal guns.
Yet, in recent years, there has been a concerted effort on the part of much of the media establishment that is decidedly liberal to use local Freedom of Information laws to collect and publish information about law-abiding concealed carry permit holders as though they were common criminals. Citizens in most states are completely unaware that the media even has access to such information.
Unfortunately, Ohio isn’t the only state in which concealed carry lists have been openly published in the media. Of the 49 states that permit concealed carry (only Wisconsin does not permit its citizens to carry a concealed weapon, plus the District of Columbia), 28 of those allow public access to the lists of permit holders. Several have restrictions on how journalists may use such information, but many do not. And others have language that is somewhat ambiguous with respect to publication in newspapers. This has left many Second Amendment advocates with the messy undertaking of pressuring state legislators to close loopholes and tighten up legislative language to ensure that citizens with concealed carry permits aren’t treated in the same way as state-registered sex offenders, which is precisely the example to which many of the newspapers have compared the publication of concealed carry lists.
In Arkansas, there is still controversy brewing over the state’s Concealed Carry Privacy Bill that passed last April. After a newspaper published the list of names and zip codes of concealed carry license holders (see below), language was specifically proposed to protect the privacy of these permit holders; but that language was watered down significantly in the final bill. The swing vote in that case was cast as “Present” by state Senator Gilbert Baker, a conservative who is now running against Senator Blanche Lincoln for the U.S. Senate. That instance is making its way back into the news again, especially in light of the current Senate race.
Of all the opposition that Second Amendment advocates have come up against, it’s actually the establishment media that has often presented the greatest challenge. In a nation where the media is supposed to serve as that additional arm of our system of checks and balance in protecting our constitutional rights, battling one that maintains an obvious position of bias on the issues of gun rights and privacy is not exactly comforting.
- In February of 2009, the Arkansas Times created controversy when editor Max Brantley published a blog post titled “Annals of Gun Nuttery“, in which he provided readers with a full list of names and zip codes of concealed carry license holders in Arkansas. The list has since been removed from the post, but not after creating a stir and unnecessarily putting some in potential danger.
- Also in February of 2009, citizens in Memphis, Tennessee were outraged when the Commercial Appeal published an online database that allows anyone to search for individuals who hold a concealed carry license. Editor Chris Peck later published this explanation, chalking the whole thing up to a learning experience. While he insisted the paper wasn’t trying to infringe upon second amendment rights or invade anyone’s privacy, he likened the public service to that of publishing a sex-offender database, which leads one to believe there’s still a whole lot of “learning” going on over at that paper. Hopefully learning the Second Amendment and the rights of law-abiding citizens.
- In 2007 in Virginia, Roanoke Times editorial writer Christian Trejbal published a piece titled “Shedding Light on Concealed Handguns“, about the process of open government, using permit checks on gun owners as the subject for Sunshine Week. Some of the research process was cumbersome, as he complained, “A state that eagerly puts sex offender data online complete with an interactive map could easily do the same with gun permits, but it does not.” The editorial then included – as “a gift” – the complete database of those permitted to carry concealed handguns, and he proceeded to cherry pick some names, noting whether or not those individuals are ‘packing’ (his language). Two weeks later, the paper published a lengthy apology and removed the database, after receiving thousands of angry letters, samples of which are posted here.
- In Medford, Oregon, Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters denied a request in 2007 from the Medford Mail Tribune for a list of permit holders it intended on utilizing for its newspaper. The request came after a local teacher applied for a permit to protect herself from a violent ex-husband. The paper claimed to be acting on behalf of the public’s interest in ensuring open and transparent government. The sheriff disagreed, citing a security statute, so the paper took him to court. The newspaper’s editor, Bob Hunter, claimed the paper doesn’t plan to publish the list, though there has been a statewide effort in Oregon and elsewhere across the country to do just that. In 2010, the case is still active in the court system. Judges heard the case last month, while anxious permit holders still await the fate of their privacy and security.
- Amongst all the disheartening stories of media outlets behaving in this manner, there is one example that ends well, in upstate New York. In 2008, when editor Ken Tingley and reporter Nick Reisman of the Post-Star solicited multiple county officials for the names of handgun permit holders, they intended on creating an online searchable database of the information on their paper’s website. The Saratoga county clerk, Kathleen Marchione, was reluctant, indicating in emails that she was complying with the paper’s request only because she was required by law to do so. She continued by warning them that publishing such information could jeopardize the safety of residents. Meanwhile, the North Country Gazette had caught wind of the Post-Star‘s plans, and filed its own Freedom of Information request to get copies of the Post-Star‘s filings and email correspondence. They intervened and turned the tables by making the story about the Post-Star‘s intentions, which generated enough public outrage to stop the Post-Star‘s publication of the list. To top it off, after the Post-Star tried to deny their intentions, the North Country Gazette went public with the emails. And the Post-Star went silent on the issue. You must read the entire story at the North Country Gazette website.
There are similar concealed-carry confidentiality battles going on in many other states, many of which Buckeye Firearms in Ohio has done a fantastic job of researching and reporting in great detail.
Such actions taken by various media outlets are completely out of proportion with the facts about those who legally own a handgun. Study after study has shown that it’s these individuals who are the most law abiding. Les Jones notes in his post, “Concealed Carry Permit Holders More Lawful Than Most” some great logic behind why this is the case, and also cites some solid studies to back it up. These are citizens who don’t want to lose their permit and therefore obey all the rules that holding a concealed carry permit requires of them. These are also the citizens that are typically the first to step in and save their fellow citizens in the absence of any law enforcement when a real criminal is in the act of committing a violent crime against them.
Gun ownership is a constitutional right. States can and do make it difficult to own a gun, by instituting all sorts of laws and requiring permits and background checks and fees, and setting limits on when you can purchase guns and how many you can get in a period of time, all in the name of the public’s safety. Perhaps some of the rules in some states are sensible. But the bottom line is, the Second Amendment of the US Constitution clearly states, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” We all understand that people care about public safety. But these are citizens who have legally registered their guns, passed all of the background checks, and are following all of the laws. What safety benefits do you really gain if you know that your carpool buddy is packing heat? If anything, stats show you’re probably less likely to be carjacked and killed if someone in that car is armed. Meanwhile, it’s the carjacker who’s pointing an unregistered, unlicensed gun at you whose name and address weren’t published in your community newspaper.
If I have a legitimate permit and I’m obeying the law, the general public should have no more business knowing whether I carry a gun than it does whether I carry mace, whether I carry a large rock in my backpack, or for that matter whether I have a cup of steaming hot coffee in my car. Anything is a weapon. I keep a baseball bat hidden beneath my bed and one under the front seat of my car; should my name and address be published on a list of concealed baseball bat holders so that potential intruders may know that I keep a weapon of self defense?
The guys over at the Ohio Free Press have reinvigorated a story that needs to stay in the public eye. American citizens must be reminded that our constitutional rights are under attack every day. What’s worse is that the attackers themselves are the Fourth Estate — the press — the very institution that is supposed to serve as the people’s vehicle for checks and balances against our own government. It’s no wonder so many refer to the mainstream media these days as the Fourth Branch of government.
When describing the bias that exists on the issue of gun rights, Chad D. Baus, Vice Chairman of Buckeye Firearms Association, and NRA-certified firearms instructor, summed up the issue in a post from July 2009:
While the “right to privacy” is spoken highly of by everyone from adulterous politicians to the ACLU, pro-gun activists across the fruited plain are finding that attitudes among the elites are much different when it comes to exercising one’s right to bear arms for self-defense without the judgmental glare of the ignorant and uninformed. It is clear that, while progress is being made, the fight for concealed carry confidentiality is far from over.
Let’s hope the Ohio Free Press and others like them continue on their mission to call out those in the press who have their own agenda and represent a threat to our liberties. Despite the fact that gun rights is a bipartisan issue, many still view it — and attack anything having to do with guns — as a “right-wing” one. Perhaps that’s why the government’s not banging down my door to take away my baseball bat.