The Billings Outpost

AP, attorney general both right on gun permits

The Associated Press has been taking an unfair battering over its recent request for information about Montanans who have permits to carry concealed weapons.

After news surfaced that Attorney General Tim Fox had denied the request, anonymous commenters on internet blogs questioned the right of AP reporters to obtain public documents, print public information and even to go on living on this planet.

“When the top AP Nazis end up floating face down in the river,” one wrote, “they will think twice about f______ with real Americans.”

Another wrote, “Associate Propaganda – they will know when they see my muzzle flash.”

A caller to the “Voices of Montana” radio program, hosted by Aaron Flint, who first broke news of the request, called it another example of liberals and progressives “looking at ways of destroying us” by making information about gun ownership available to Al Qaida.

He called the AP’s request a “terroristic, tyrannical form of helping to arm our enemies and destroy our individual freedoms and rights.”

Note to defenders of gun rights: If you really want to protect the Second Amendment, you probably don’t want to come across in public debates as the sort of violent and deranged citizen who really shouldn’t be toting a gun.

Even the Daily Interlake newspaper in Kalispell got on the case, calling the AP’s request “an unnecessary, self-inflicted black eye.”

But ire against the AP was misplaced. If concealed weapons permits are, indeed, public information, as the AP contended and previous attorney general actions would indicate, then the AP isn’t the problem. The problem is that Al Qaida could just as easily go ask for that information itself.

But not in Montana. When Attorney General Fox denied the request, he argued, quite reasonably, that the whole point of getting a concealed weapon permit is to keep people from knowing you have a gun. Public disclosure of that fact sort of defeats the purpose.

Besides, a law that takes effect Oct. 1 will make all concealed weapons permit information confidential. The AP never explained exactly why it wanted the information now, but possibly it just wanted to have a last look while looking was still possible.

Depending on your point of view, the Legislature’s actions could have been worse. Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed a bill that would have allowed anybody eligible to carry a handgun to conceal it without a permit.

Or the actions could have been better. The Montana Newspaper Association, of which the Outpost is a desultory member, argued before the Legislature for a different bill that would have made most information confidential but would have kept the names and addresses of concealed carry permit applicants a matter of public record.

The Newspaper Association’s John Barrows testified that under the bill the Legislature passed, “even such neutral, non-identifying statistical information, such as the number of applications, or permits granted, would become much more difficult to obtain, and to which the public is undoubtedly entitled.”

Attorney General Fox argued in denying the AP’s request that permits should be private even before the bill takes effect. The question involves two provisions next to each other in the Montana Constitution: Article II Section 9, which opens all government documents to public scrutiny “except in cases in which the demand of individual privacy clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure”; and Article II Section 10, which says the “right of privacy shall not be infringed without the showing of a compelling state interest.”

Mr. Fox said that decisions by previous attorneys general to make permit information public did not necessarily apply because the AP’s request was so sweeping and unrestricted in the information it sought. The AP failed to show a “compelling state interest” in releasing the information, he said.

On his Montana Lowdown blog, Great Falls Tribune reporter John Adams did come up with some reasonably compelling interests.

“The Associated Press has a long history of this kind of reporting,” he wrote. “It was not too long ago [AP reporter Matt] Gouras uncovered the fact that hundreds of people barred from having guns because they are felons on parole or probation were still able to get hunting licenses in Montana with no questions asked.”

It’s not hard to think of other reasons why gun permit information might be helpful. Concealed carry applications are processed at the county level, so it would be newsworthy if a county sheriff or two ignored criminal backgrounds, showed favoritism in granting permits to their buddies or routinely denied permits to members of certain ethnic groups.

It also would be helpful to know whether permit holders are more, or less, likely to become involved in violent crimes, and whether they take advantage of their permits to commit robberies.

Americans have funny ways of thinking about privacy anyway. In the same broadcast in which he criticized the AP’s request, Aaron Flint seemed to endorse enforced public disclosure by food stamp recipients of what they spend their money on.

At the national level, we finally are having a long-delayed debate over what information the government is entitled to pry out of our email and phone records. Libertarians and liberals are finding common ground, a definite improvement over the usual menu of Republicans who endorse government prying except when a Democrat is president and Democrats who tolerate prying except when a Republican is president.

Besides, much of the information on concealed carry permit applications is readily available elsewhere. By going to Yellowstone County’s website, you can learn not only where I live but how many bathrooms our house has, how big the front porch is and whether we’ve been paying our property taxes. Nobody seems to be protesting that.

So did the AP overreach in filing its request? Nope. Did the attorney general, given the current state of Montana law, properly deny the request? Yep.

Should the people who issued death threats over this issue be allowed to own guns in Montana? Ah, there’s a real question.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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