“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.