CHARLESTON, SC — A throwdown between a county sheriff and a small-town newspaper is showing once again how some local law enforcement officials oppose laws that make gun records public—and how they’re prepared to confront media organizations that seek access to the records.
But while this latest dispute is eerily similar to an incident last year that led a North Carolina editor to resign and leave town, the editor of The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register in West Virginia’s northern panhandle is standing his ground. “Nobody’s going to run me out of my home,” he says.
On March 4, Fred Connors, a staff writer at the two papers, filed a public-records request with the Ohio County Sheriff’s Office: “Under the West Virginia Freedom of Information Act … I am requesting an opportunity to inspect or obtain copies of public records that list all residents who have received a concealed carry permit from your office.” Connors didn’t say what his paper planned to do with the information, but wrote that disclosure of the information was “in the public interest and will contribute significantly to the public’s understanding of this issue.”
A few days later, Ohio County Sheriff Patrick Butler wrote back. He didn’t cite any provision in state law to deny the request—and later he acknowledged that the records were public under the law—but told Connors the newspaper would not be getting them anyway. “My decision is based on several points,” the sheriff wrote:
The citizens of Ohio County voted me into office to protect them, and their property. Publishing their names as valid permit holders is an invasion of their privacy, and puts them at unnecessary risk. With drug-related crimes such as home burglaries, armed pharmacy robberies, and shoplifting at an all-time high, anyone with criminal intent could target permit holders knowing that they most likely keep firearms in their homes.
Alternatively, names not on the list could be targeted as unarmed, and less likely to defend themselves during a robbery. For the aforementioned reasons, I refuse to compromise the safety of the citizens of Ohio County. An appeal of this decision may be filed with the Ohio County Clerk of Court.
The newspaper hasn’t yet written about its FOI request or the sheriff’s denial. But the sheriff has. On March 21, the department posted copies of the newspaper’s letter and the sheriff’s response on its Facebook page.
From the post:
ATTENTION West Virginia CCW Permit Holders!!! Sheriff Patrick Butler - Ohio County Sheriff, as well as other local Sheriffs, have received a request to provide the local newspaper a list of ALL CCW PERMIT HOLDERS. The request was made under FOIA, the Freedom of Information Act. Sheriff Butler has denied this request, as he feels the release of this information is a violation of privacy; as well as comprises the safety of our residents. Sheriff Butler believes that the CCW Permit Holders have a right to know that there has been a request for this information to be made public. An image of the FOIA request and the Sheriff’s reply are attached to this post.
Most of the more than 50 comments in the following days applauded the sheriff, and at least one said the reporter should be “run out of town.”
The situation is remarkably similar to an episode we wrote about last year, in the mountains of western North Carolina—and in that case, after the sheriff escalated the dispute by taking it to Facebook, the editor actually did leave town, after the publisher ran an apology for the paper’s “tremendous error in judgment.”
For his part, Mike Myer, editor of The Intelligencer and News-Register, says he’s not going anywhere. “I don’t plan to leave town,” he told CJR Friday. “Nobody’s going to run me out of my home.”
Myer says his papers sent similar FOI requests to six surrounding counties; so far, five have been denied. Since the Ohio County sheriff posted the letters to Facebook, local residents have been calling the newsroom.
“I’ve personally gotten four or five calls from irate readers,” the editor says. “In each case after I explain our position they are understanding.”
His newspapers, he says, have no intention of pulling a Journal News—that is, publishing a full list of concealed weapons permit-holders in the area. But they do want the public information so they can evaluate whether local sheriffs are handling the permitting process properly. In West Virginia, county sheriffs are in charge of granting and revoking permits.
Myer says he hopes to have a story or editorial about the situation in a week or so, and the papers haven’t made any decision yet about taking legal action.