November: Concealed carry permits should be open

2005 Columns

Let’s set aside the question of whether Wisconsin should have a “concealed carry” for handguns, and instead turn to the issue of whether permit carriers’ identities should be kept secret.

On Nov. 2, a joint public hearing on the concealed carry bill will be held by the Assembly Criminal Justice and Homeland Security and the Senate Judiciary, Corrections and Privacy committees, a bright signal that this bill is on the fast track to the Senate and Assembly floors.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Scott Gunderson of Waterford and Sen. Dave Zien of Eau Claire, is similar to one that passed the Legislature last session and narrowly failed to survive a veto by Gov. Jim Doyle. If the legislation passes again, another gubernatorial veto is virtually certain, but this time there may be sufficient votes for an override.

While not taking a position on the legislation’s central intent, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, Wisconsin Newspaper Association and the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association are opposed to a provision that would keep secret the names of persons who are issued “concealed carry” permits.

Concealed carry laws exist in more than 40 other states and many of those states have secrecy provisions. But Wisconsin is different, or at least ought to be, in that it has such a clearly stated policy when it comes to public records:

“[The law] shall be construed in every instance with a presumption of complete public access, consistent with the conduct of governmental business. The denial of public access generally is contrary to the public interest, and only in an exceptional case may access be denied.”

Despite this language, we in Wisconsin can expect some of the arguments for secrecy to be recycled here. So let’s consider their veracity.

Secrecy argument No. 1: In seeking co-sponsors, Gunderson and Zien wrote: “There is no valid reason to allow the media, police, anti-gun activists or anyone else to pull a list of people who applied for a concealed carry permit or a list of people who have a … permit. [Public access] serves absolutely no good purpose.”

Wrong. It allows the police and the public to know who has a permit to carry concealed weapons. Among other things, this information is useful in accessing how the law is working, something that is clearly in the public interest.

Secrecy argument No. 2: In North Dakota, lawmakers were concerned that terrorists could request the list, track down the owners, break into their homes and steal the guns, and then assemble an arsenal. In Minnesota, the fear wasn’t about al-Queda operatives doing that so much as common criminals would.

Permit-holder names in a smaller number of states allowing concealed carry are not secret. To date, those states have not suffered over-anxious police officers, terrorist intrusions, targeted home invasions by criminals. Public policy ought not be driven by unsubstantiated fear.

Secrecy argument No. 3: Oklahoma decided that gun owners’ privacy rights trumped the public’s right to know. “Sooner State” lawmakers now are thinking that hunting and fishing license records should be closed, since they could tend to indicate who owns firearms.

Well, isn’t the blaze orange also a giveaway? The fact is there are lots of ways for people to tell who is a hunter and who may have weapons in their home. In some parts of the state, the answer is: Just about everyone.

Whatever else one might think about letting state residents carry concealed weapons, Wisconsin’s traditions of openness ought to be respected and affirmed. We need freedom of information, not from it.

Peter D. Fox — a hunter and gun owner — is executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association. Your Right to Know is produced by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a statewide media group devoted to protecting public access to meetings and records.