As North Carolina legislators move to close public access to firearm permits, some sheriffs are already refusing to hand over the records.
Following a public showdown with the sheriff in Cherokee County, a local newspaper editor quit last week after his records request – which was denied – made him the target of death threats. The county has the state’s highest rate of concealed-handgun permits.
In Gaston County, Sheriff Alan Cloninger responded Friday to a newspaper’s request for gun-permit records by withholding names and addresses of permit holders.
As the nation revisits gun control following the massacre in Newtown, Conn., the sheriffs embody another facet of the debate: What are we entitled to know, through public records, about our neighbors’ weaponry?
Very little, according to bills before the N.C. House and Senate. The bills, backed by gun-rights groups and the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association, would make handgun and concealed-handgun permits off-limits to the public.
“It will be hashed out,” said Sen. Stan Bingham, R-Davidson, the Senate bill’s primary sponsor. “But I’ve got support from gun owners and people who are not gun owners.”
Legislators in 10 of the 12 states where such records are now accessible, including North Carolina, have introduced measures to close them, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press reports. The Arlington, Va., nonprofit counts 28 states that don’t make gun records public and 10 states where access is limited.
Media advocates say making gun records public record ensures that law enforcement is fair and responsible in handing out permits.
A New York Times analysis of North Carolina data in 2011 found that more than 200 of the 240,000 concealed-handgun permit holders at that time had been convicted of gun- or weapon-related felonies or misdemeanors in the previous five years.
Having access to the records, advocates say, doesn’t mean personal information will be published.
The names of rape victims are public, but newspapers rarely print them, said Amanda Martin, general counsel for the North Carolina Press Association.
“That doesn’t mean those court cases should be litigated in courtrooms that are closed,” Martin said.
Proponents of restricting access to the data say limitsprevent law-abiding gun owners from becoming targets of burglary and public scorn. About 300,000 North Carolina residents have concealed-handgun permits, according to the N.C. Department of Justice.
The North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association says sheriffs have spent months assuaging the fears of gun owners since December, when a New York newspaper posted online maps that showed the names and addresses of handgun permit holders.
“The folks who have guns don’t want all the criminals to know they have guns and break into their houses and steal them,” said Eddie Caldwell, legal counsel for the association. “And the folks who don’t have guns don’t want the criminals to know and not be able to defend themselves.”
‘Safety of my citizens’
Cherokee County Sheriff Keith Lovin acknowledged bad blood between his department and the local newspaper, the Cherokee Scout. The newspaper has published articles about alleged abuses at the department, including a State Bureau of Investigation probe.
In early February, to the applause of spectators, Cherokee commissioners passed a resolution encouraging legislators to close access to handgun permits. The Scout soon filed its request for the records.
Lovin, a Cherokee County native and sheriff for 10 years, said he consulted with his department’s attorney before denying the request, and he considered the “safety of my citizens.” Releasing the data, he said, would invade permit holders’ privacy and expose them to burglaries or identity theft.
Nearly 7 percent of Cherokee County’s 27,000 residents have a concealed-handgun permit, state data shows, more than twice the state average of 3.1 percent. In Mecklenburg County, 18,762 residents have permits, or 2 percent.
Lovin posted his response to the Scout on the department’s Facebook page, drawing dozens of supportive comments. The sheriff characterized Cherokee County as politically conservative and has “a real feel for patriotism.”
“I really can’t see a reason to release that information,” he said. “When you’re identifying citizens who have broken no laws, I have a hard time wrapping my head around that. Throwing people’s names out in the press without good reason and cause is hard to justify.”
Scout publisher David Brown and editor Robert Horne declined comment.
In a Feb. 21 letter to readers, Brown blamed Lovin for threats from “near-hysterical residents” and said the newspaper never intended to publish permit holders’ names. He said the Scout wanted to learn if permits were issued fairly.
Lovin “is the person who grants such permits, and we’ve been told you have to have the right name or know the right person in order to get one, so we wanted to take a look and see if that’s true,” Brown wrote.
Last week, Brown wrote another note to readers. He said the records request had been retracted and apologized for a “tremendous error in judgment” in asking for them.
Records request elsewhere have drawn similar reactions.
“A lot of the debate comes to a debate over psychology,” said Andrew Beaujon, a writer for the Poynter Institute, a journalism training organization, who has covered the backlash over gun records requests. “People feel threatened when other people find out if they have guns or not.”
Last week, Arkansas Business had to assign someone to answer editor Gwen Moritz’s phone in shifts to handle the expletive-laced calls that poured in after the journal published the names and ZIP codes of concealed-handgun permit holders in the state.
“ ‘I hope someone comes and robs you and rapes you and burns you alive in a car,’ ” Moritz said one caller told her.
Permit holders, including law enforcement officers and domestic abuse victims with restraining orders, called to say they feared she had made them targets.
That made her rethink her decision to publish the list and apologize in a column – even though she said she still thinks the records should be public.
In North Carolina, the gun-rights group Grass Roots North Carolina retaliated when a Raleigh television reporter posted a searchable database last summer on concealed-handgun permit holders in 22 counties.
“In the era of the Internet, we all live in glass houses,” said president Paul Valone. The group sent personal information about reporter Mark Binker, including his home’s value and political party affiliation, to its 87,000 e-mail subscribers.
“What they’re trying to do is shame gun owners,” Valone said of such media reports. “ ‘Gee, Jim you’ve got a gun permit – you’re not going to go postal on us are you?’ It’s an attempt to stigmatize people.”
Mecklenburg County Sheriff Chipp Bailey reluctantly provided a database of handgun-permit applications to the Observer, at the newspaper’s request, last month.
The Observer sought the information to better understand a surge in gun ownership.
“Our professional opinion is that publication or distribution of any of this information, outside of general statistical analysis, presents a serious threat to the safety and well-being of the permit applicants, their families, and the general public,” Bailey wrote Observer Editor Rick Thames.
Bailey, in contrast to some of his peers, concluded his office was compelled to release the data.
Sheriffs aren’t getting such requests solely from media outlets. The Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office this year has received about five requests, spokeswoman Julia Rush said, from college researchers and individuals as well as the Observer.
The N.C. Sheriffs’ Association said its members have received many recent requests from people outside of the traditional media.
Counties launch fight
Gaston County commissioners said they sought to tighten records in January by changing North Carolina laws when they passed a resolution in January asking legislators to seal permit records.
The county’s legislative delegation then sponsored the House bill and drummed up support for its twin in the Senate.
Commissioner Tracy Philbeck said the board was concerned about media abuse of the permit data, including the story involving the Raleigh TV station.
When the Gaston Gazette asked in January for a list of area handgun and concealed carry permit holders, Sheriff Cloninger said he complied “the way I believe the law requires me to.”
Cloninger response didn’t include the names or addresses of permit holders – only their ages, genders and zip codes.
“I think there’s room for interpretation about what’s required to be given out,” he said.
Such checks are one argument in favor of keeping gun records public, said Aaron Mackey, an attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Another, he said, is that the records let parents can learn whether a neighbor has guns before allowing their children to play there.
“We understand there are privacy concerns contained in this data, but we feel like there’s a really great public interest in having this disclosed,” he said.
Database editor Gavin Off and researcher Maria David contributed.