January: Gun permit secrecy shields law’s impact

2012 Columns

Dave ZweifelWisconsin citizens who obtain a simple permit now have the right to carry concealed weapons, in most public places. According to the governor and the majority of state legislators, that’s going to make the state a safer place.

Unfortunately, though, we’ll never know for sure.

That’s because the Legislature saw fit to exempt the permitting process from Wisconsin’s long-standing open records law. Not even law enforcement officials are allowed to routinely access the list of people who have been granted concealed carry permits.

That perplexes Doug Pettit, the village of Oregon’s police chief and legislative representative for the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association, who tried in vain this year to get the records opened for inspection.

“I would think that the sponsors of this law would want to show proof to the public that the sky isn’t falling because of concealed carry,” he said. “If no one can access records, how will we ever know?”

Concealed carry advocates argue that making permit records public opens the door for criminals and other miscreants to pick their targets. But the secrecy built into the new law will make it much more difficult to analyze just how concealed carry is impacting the state.

According to a running tally from the Violence Policy Center, a Washington nonprofit that tracks gun deaths, at least 300 people, including 11 police officers, have been killed by concealed carry permit holders since 2007. The center believes that figure is low because it must rely on newspaper stories that only sometimes contain such information.

Jeri Bonavia, executive director of the Wisconsin Anti – Violence Effort, said there have been “troubling trends in some of the states that early on made permit records available.” The National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups moved to get states that allowed openness to close the records and lobbied other states, including Wisconsin, to deny access to these records.

“If legislators and Gov. Walker are so proud of this new law,” Bonavia said, “you’d think they would want to proudly show off the results, proving we’re all much safer now.”

Late last month the New York Times studied the track record of concealed carry in North Carolina, one of the few states that allows access to these records. It found that of the roughly 250,000 North Carolinians with concealed carry permits, more than 2,400 of them had been convicted of felonies or misdemeanors, excluding traffic-related crimes. Ten of them committed murder or manslaughter. All but two of the killers used a gun.

Additionally, nearly 900 permit holders had been convicted of drunken driving, a potentially lethal situation for a police officer making an arrest of someone carrying a concealed weapon.

Wisconsin’s law does require the Attorney General’s office to submit an annual statistical report each March that tallies how many permits were applied for, issued, denied, suspended and revoked. But information on who has gotten a permit can only be made public in connection with a prosecution in which the person’s status as a licensee is deemed relevant.

And that falls far short of giving the public adequate data to keep tabs on how the new law is working.

Is the state conducting adequate background checks before issuing permits? Are all the rules of the new law being followed?

More importantly, does allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons actually deter crime, as its supporters have long insisted, or does the new law cause even more public safety problems?

We will never be able to answer such questions as long as Wisconsin keeps these records secret.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Dave Zweifel, a former council president, is editor emeritus at The Capital Times.