Should Gun Records Be Public Records?

The right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. It’s right there in the plain text of the Second Amendment. It’s there for anyone with eyes to see.

However, a lot of people don’t see it the same way. There are tons of laws infringing on the Second Amendment. It’s a sad state of affairs. It’s one we need to continue fighting, but in the meantime, we have to deal with it as well.

Perhaps the most egregious part of this is how so many gun owners are treated little better than sex offenders.

Oh, to a gun control advocate, that sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not. Not really. After all, a surprising amount of records around guns are public records in many places, a fact that’s stirred up a hornet’s nest in California.

Sutter County Sheriff Brandon Barnes acknowledged that he was legally obligated to give the Chronicle names, dates and more for the county’s thousands of permits — data an editor told the Sacramento Bee the paper wanted to aggregate and comb for trends or signs of the system being abused. But a new battle began when the sheriff notified gun owners about where their data was headed.

“As always, I am committed to protecting the rights of our citizens, and those rights afforded to us by our Second Amendment,” Barnes wrote in a letter he posted on Facebook last month. He says he mailed the note to every permit holder in his area.

The virulent response since — hundreds of angry comments, thousands of shares and even threats that led the Chronicle to heighten its security — have renewed a debate over the public’s right to gun records and mobilized people in one of California’s conservative-leaning inland counties. It’s a familiar story in the normally mundane world of records requests, where paper after paper has met anxiety and outrage from permit holders alleging an invasion of their privacy.

Experts say years of backlash have helped make government records on gun ownership remarkably inaccessible across the country. They also say it’s dissuaded some reporters from going after data that’s become a political lightning rod.

Now, I’m going to point out first and foremost that death threats, as has been alleged in this particular instance, are uncalled for. I get the anger that leads to them, but it doesn’t do anything good for our cause when you use them. Remember that most of these folks think we’re crazy and unhinged already. There’s no need to reinforce that belief.

That said, there’s something inherently wrong with the idea of any kind of gun record being public. At least, not when it applies to an individual.

Sure, gathering information on the total number of permits is one thing. I can see a legitimate public interest in such numbers, after all. What I don’t see is why it’s anyone’s business that John. Q. Smith has a permit. Simply put, it’s not.

Further, it risks the lives and safety of those individuals. After all, once someone knows they have a permit, they know they have a gun. That makes their homes a potential target for burglary–after all, you can only carry so many firearms on your person at a time and most gun owners have more than one firearm–and gun theft.

Or, if they’re being targetted specifically, the threat knows they have a permit and are likely armed.

Honestly, there are all kinds of nightmare scenarios that stem from this.

So why do journalists want this information so badly? The answer, unfortunately, is quite simple. They want to report it so neighbors and the community can shame the gun owners. In places like California, they’ve done a decent job of stigmatizing guns to the point that many people simply believe the only reason to own a gun is a desire to hurt people when nothing could be further from the truth.

Because of that belief, however, plastering who has a permit all over the paper and the internet is likely designed to create a shaming environment, to try and apply peer pressure to grown men and women and either push them to give up their guns or to isolate them from society as a whole. They want to drive them underground, in a manner of speaking.

The journalists will argue that the public has a right to know, but I disagree. They have no right to know what a private citizen does with regard to exercising his or her constitutionally protected rights.

Frankly, these records should never be public. Not with regard to the specifics of individual records. An overview? Sure. Understandings of reasons for denials? Absolutely. Why permits are granted, since not all are in California? No question.

But who has a permit isn’t something the public needs to know.

Will California journalists next ask who had medical marijuana licenses back when that was the only legal way to get pot? Did they ever? I don’t recall seeing any such instance.

Then again, the rules are different when we’re talking about gun owners. At least, that’s how it looks from here.