Ohio has joined an off-target, and dangerous, nationwide push to seal gun records from public view. A bill introduced in the Ohio Senate would prevent journalists from even looking at records that show who is licensed to carry concealed firearms. It would add yet another exception to the Ohio Public Records Act — in other words, to the public’s right to know.
The plan is an overreaching, knee-jerk reaction to a decision by a Westchester, N.Y., newspaper to reveal the names and addresses of local concealed-carry permit holders. The story came in the wake of a shooting massacre last December at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school.
In Ohio, Senate Bill 60 would remove the exemption that allows journalists to view carrying a concealed weapon (CCW) permit records kept by county sheriff’s offices.
The proposed changes are onerous and unnecessary. Concealed-carry permits do not reveal where a gun is stored. Moreover, even now, Ohio newspapers could not publish a list of CCW permit holders in this state. Current state law does not permit journalists to copy — or even note — such records. This bizarre compromise already violates the spirit of Ohio’s open records laws.
Gun rights advocates and politicians who support the bill argue that CCW records have no news or social value. With all due respect, that’s not their job. If politicians and other interest groups had the power to shield information they deemed unfit for public scrutiny, most government records eventually would become secret.
The Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police recognizes that access to concealed-carry records serves the broader public interest. For starters, the public should know — or be able to find out — how much of the gun violence in a community is perpetrated by CCW permit holders.
Whether an elected local sheriff issues permits to people who aren’t supposed to have them would also be a matter of public interest that couldn’t be examined without concealed-carry permit records.
Such access, by the way, could help gun rights advocates. When states around the country debated whether to issue CCW permits, people opposed to the change argued that they would increase gun violence. So far, most available evidence suggests that such a rise in violence hasn’t occurred; gun permit records could substantiate that.
More than 300,000 Ohioans have CCW permits; a record number of permits — nearly 80,000 — were issued last year. Journalists and the general public should have equal and unfettered access to such records, but legislators shut the general public out in 2004.
Ohio’s public records laws already have far too many exemptions. Concealed-carry permit applications are government records and, therefore, should be public.
Gun ownership is a constitutional right. The debate here is not about gun rights or the merits of a questionable newspaper story. It’s about maintaining an open and transparent government, and whether Ohio lawmakers will show as much respect for the First Amendment as they have for the Second.
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