Existing restrictions on access to gun records? Not good enough, lawmakers say

Michigan lawmakers move to codify gun exemption even while strengthening FOIA law

DETROIT, MI — The year of the Journal News backlash isn’t over yet.

When the suburban New York newspaper published interactive maps showing the names and addresses of pistol permit holders in its coverage area, the blowback was swift and fierce. At least 10 state legislatures soon moved to place new restrictions on access to gun ownership data, according to Aaron Mackey of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

But as Mackey’s article also noted, a lack of access to gun records is nothing new. At the time of the Journal News story, fewer than a dozen states made the records open to the press and general public; the backlash just accelerated a trend that had been underway for years.

That’s the context for what’s happening here in Michigan, where the state legislature is pushing forward with what you might call doubleplus-secrecy for gun ownership records even as lawmakers consider other measures to strengthen access to public records.

As Capitol Confidential explained last year, in the wake of the Journal News controversy, concealed pistol licenses are already exempt from Michigan’s public-records law. And in 1999, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that state police could refuse a Freedom of Information Act request for the names and addresses of handgun permit holders, because disclosure would amount to a “clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy.”

But the court’s ruling was never codified in state law, and the court didn’t require police to reject the records request. State lawmakers are now moving to close any potential loopholes. Last week, as part of a package of bills sought by gun-rights advocates, the Republican-controlled House voted 81-28 to exempt all gun ownership records from state FOIA requests. The bill includes provisions for access by law enforcement under some circumstances. The measure now heads to the Senate, where it was referred to the Judiciary Committee this week.

The National Rifle Association—the biggest interest-group backer of the bills—has suggested that when gun records are public, it can aid thieves that target private homes. But it seems clear that keeping the records away from reporters’ potentially prying eyes was a key motivation. As NRA spokesperson Catherine Mortensen put it in an AP report on the Michigan legislation, gun owners should be protected from “unscrupulous media organizations.”

The concrete effect of the bill, though, is less clear. Jim Schaefer, Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter at the Detroit Free Press, said in an email that the measure “just makes official what has already been happening here for years. We haven’t been able to get [concealed-carry weapon] permits for ages.”

“It seems like just another step toward making information inaccessible,” said George Hunter, a longtime crime reporter for The Detroit News.

But any step toward reduced access, even when redundant, is still a matter of concern for open government advocates, especially in a state that gets poor marks for transparency. Michigan’s “public access to information” was graded a “D” in the 2012 State Integrity Investigation from the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity, and Public Radio International. (That effort was supported the Omidyar Network. The Democracy Fund, a major funder of the United States Project, is a project of the Omidyar Network.)

The Michigan Press Association opposed the gun bills in committee. “We believe that records compiled with public dollars are public records,” said Lisa McGraw, an MPA spokesperson. Especially concerning, she said, is the possibility of prosecution for those that reveal the names of gun owners without authorization.

And while the Journal News’ use of gun records was controversial even within journalism circles, there are plenty of ways reporters might make use of the information to add context and rigor to reporting that doesn’t amount to an indiscriminate data-dump.

As Hunter of The Detroit News said in an email: “I might want to look at how many people own firearms near schools. Or, here in Detroit, we’ve had a number of recent cases where citizens with concealed-weapons permits have shot criminals. I would like to know whether there’s been a spike in people getting guns. Are more seniors becoming gun owners? More women? These would be interesting stories…but unfortunately, if I want to look at these trends, I have to rely on anecdotes from gun shops, etc.”

Notably, the gun records exemptions moved forward at the same time that two Republican lawmakers proposed legislation to strengthen the state’s flawed FOIA law. Rep. Mike Shirkey put forth a bill to standardize how much public entities can charge for FOIA requests, limiting the inconsistent and sometimes outrageous fees charged to media and other information-seekers, while Rep. Tom McMillin sponsored a measure to create an Open Government Commission to hear FOIA appeals, giving members of the press or public an opportunity to contest denials without the expense of going to court. The cost-containment bill passed the House by a wide majority on Thursday.

The MPA considered the efforts by Shirkey and McMillin important enough to honor them with its inaugural Sunshine Award. According to a news release written by McGraw, “Shirkey and McMillin are receiving the award based on their unstinting support of improving Michigan’s FOIA law and people’s access to records.”

If they become law, the FOIA reforms seem poised to have more far-reaching impact than the gun-records rules. At the same time, it’s notable that while Shirkey and McMillin were working to improve access to public information, both of them voted in support of the gun-records exemption—and they did it the very same week that they received the Sunshine Award.

I haven’t seen any reporters here challenge Shirkey and McMillin on that apparent contradiction. But they should. It’s Sunshine Week, after all, and nobody should be exempt.

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit. Tags: , ,