MSJMain Street Journal
May 2009
pp. 8-9

Tennessee residents discovering that their full name, complete address, date of birth and handgun carry permit status was available for all to see and search online may be relieved to hear that the Commercial Appeal “isn’t anti-gun,” just “pro-news and information.”

This according to Editor Chris Peck, whose newspaper in December produced an online database that digitized, indexed and publicized the State’s permit records.

A year earlier, two other publications had experimented with similar features – the Tennessean in Nashville and the Roanoke Times in Virginia – though both were hastily removed due to a heavy volume of complaints. Peck’s outfit bucked the trend, defending its decision with a string of editorials and merely redacting some of the more sensitive information.

An editorial in the Jackson Sun assailed the CA’s database as a “blatantly irresponsible use of handgun permit information,” and Memphis blogger Derek Haire called it a “stupefyingly bone-headed idea” that would provide criminals with “instant access to a list of homes not to rob.”

Gun rights groups struck an even more strident tone, concerned that permit holders could become targets of identity theft, break-ins and robbery. Peck accused them of fanning a “frenzy,” as some activists around the state had turned the tables on the paper’s editorial staff, posting their names and contact information online and linking to other publicly-available data.

Ironically, Peck compared this activity to punishment for a “crime,” while media critic and CA apologist Richard Thompson labeled them “pseudo-terrorists.”

Bolstered by recent GOP gains in both chambers, state leaders already working on other Second Amendment issues moved quickly, resubmitting legislation that had been held up in previous years. Rep. Eddie Bass (D-Prospect) and Sen. Mark Norris (R-Collierville) authored bills that would make the records confidential and put Tennessee in line with Texas, Florida, Ohio and a plurality of other states that shield the information from public view.

Peck argued the information should remain open as “a matter of deep public interest,” saying among those with an active stake would be “business people who sell goods and services that might be of interest to those who carry concealed weapons.” By that logic, perhaps the Commercial Appeal should publish a driver’s license database so used car salesmen can also “generate new leads.” Or perhaps it should argue for access to other confidential information held by the government: medical records, TBI investigative records, military records, student records, mental health records, public employee records, etc.

Some advocate continued public access to the records, saying newspapers play an important watchdog role. Mistakes are made, authorities have limited resources, and well-defined “shall issue” parameters prevent “flexibility” in rejecting applicants who have violent histories but are nevertheless legally eligible to carry.

“State governments are ill-equipped to keep handgun-carry permits out of the hands of criminals,” the CA writes, pointing to nine convicted felons found with permits in one study, and 70 county residents who obtained permits despite arrests and convictions in another investigation.

These findings, while important, represent only 0.03% and 0.2% of total permit holders, respectively. And, of course, these are arguments lend support to increased oversight and eligibility reforms, not unrestricted public access.