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.
“Obviously you’re in a slippery slope situation if a sheriff can unilaterally deny a request for that type of public record,” Myer says. “What kind of record is he likely to deny next?”
Reached Friday afternoon by CJR, Butler said he thinks part of what’s happening is personal. He doesn’t have a good relationship with the newspaper, he said, and vowed to continue denying its request or appeals until his term is up in three years.
Butler acknowledged in a recent interview with a local TV station that the permits have been “ruled… a public record.” But, he added, “I disagree with that and I am going to disagree with that until the day I’m out of office.”
“I may end up in jail,” he joked to CJR. More seriously, he hopes the situation ends in a court case that sets a precedent for the state or even the nation.
“We’re prepared to fight it all the way,” he said. He reiterated that he believes the paper just doesn’t have a good enough reason for wanting the names, regardless of whether or not the information is public—and asked rhetorically what crooked or corrupt sheriff would be stupid enough to give a crony a permit and then keep it on the record books.
The refusal by local law enforcement officials to release the records comes soon after a proposal to change state law to make concealed-weapon permit data confidential—as it is in many other states—stalled in the legislature. Don Smith, director of the West Virginia Press Association, described that proposal as an “NRA-backed bill to make CWP information confidential.” He calls Myer a leader in the press fight against the measure.
About two weeks before filing the FOI request, the The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register had editorialized that gun records should remain public. While the bill’s supporters claimed the law change was needed to “safeguard the privacy of people who request concealed carry permits,” the paper wrote, the law was “all about a problem gun owners don’t have in West Virginia.”
On the other hand, enactment of the bill could create a problem. Why should the press have access to gun permit records? For the same reason thoughtful state leaders years ago gave journalists and the public access to other government documents—most of which we never publish. Unfettered ability to view government records allows us to check up on how officials handle the public’s business.
What would happen if SB 198 becomes law and a newspaper is tipped off to a sheriff who issues gun permits to cronies who are not, perhaps because of involvement in crimes such as drug trafficking, eligible for them? SB 198 would prevent us from even checking up on that.
Think it couldn’t happen? Come on, now. This is West Virginia. It can happen.
The Charleston Gazette, the state’s big daily in the capital, has for years published names in the paper’s public records section of county residents who have recently been issued a concealed-weapons permit by the local sheriff.
“We also publish people who get marriage licenses and people who file for divorce and we get more calls about that than we do about the gun permits,” says Greg Moore, the paper’s city editor. (The Gazette listings track bankruptcies and property transfers too.) One exception to complaint pattern, he says, was around the time of national controversy surrounding The Journal News.
The situation in West Virginia doesn’t appear to be as charged, yet, as the one in North Carolina. But Smith, of the West Virginia Press Association, finds the reaction of the Ohio County sheriff—and its similarities to what happened a year ago—troubling.
“It’s almost a template out there what’s going on,” he says. “That scares me.”
But he also understands the sensitive nature of guns and public records in the region’s political culture. West Virginia’s motto is “Always free,” and the state university’s mascot is a mountaineer carrying a rifle.
“Guns are part of our state,” he says. “The newspaper industry isn’t anti-gun—we’re just against hiding information from the public.”
* Pre-emptive note to commenters: The dateline in this post is Charleston, SC, because that’s where the post was written. Charleston is also the capital of West Virginia.