Forecaster Forum: Media snooping, not public good, was motive for editorial

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In the wake of the Bangor Daily News sending letters to police departments across the state, demanding the names, addresses, and birth dates of all holders of concealed handgun permits in Maine, citizen activists and Republican leaders have spoken out in support of making that personal identifying information confidential.

Meanwhile, the news media has made clear their opposition.

Last week’s editorial, “Information Doesn’t Kill People,” listed 22 randomly-chosen items that are part of the public record, subject to Maine’s Freedom of Access Act. The point was that by default, every record and meeting in state and local government is subject to the FOAA.

What the editorial didn’t sample was the 483 exceptions to the FOAA. That’s right, written into statute are 483 government records that can’t be obtained by the public. They include many measures that concern personal privacy and public safety, just like my bill to keep the personal identifying information of concealed handgun permit holders confidential, and the governor’s bill enacted last week to do so on a temporary basis while my bill goes through the public hearing and committee process in Judiciary.

Last week’s vote was to enact FOAA exception No. 484. With it, Maine joined 35 other states that keep the personal information of concealed handgun permit holders confidential.

What other parts of the public record fall into an exception? The names of General Assistance recipients are an example. It doesn’t seem right that taxpayers can’t find out who is receiving their money in the form of welfare benefits, but anybody can find out if you hold a concealed handgun permit.

What disturbs me so much about the news media’s outcry over this legislation is not the fact that they’re bashing a fairly common type of law – a FOAA exception – that was enacted with sweeping bipartisan support, 129-11 in the House and 33-0 in the Senate, as a temporary measure. No, what disturbs me is that unlike other issues they take an editorial stance on, here they have self-interest.

Broader access to public records makes the media’s job easier, and so naturally they come to the defense of public records. But Maine people have other concerns that must be balanced. With the second highest rate of gun ownership in the country, Mainers are skeptical of organizations or individuals poring through their personal information, which happened to be publicly available until last week, in order to compile data on a controversial topic that could be used to thwart gun owners’ rights.

Mainers are also concerned that if they go through the trouble to obtain a concealed handgun permit, their tactical advantage in personal protection may be jeopardized by the public availability of that information. What’s the point of concealed-carry if anyone can know you carry? And yes, there is the concern of firearms theft, a concern flippantly dismissed by the editorial as, essentially, “criminals are too dumb to think of that.”

I hope they’re right, but I’d rather be sure.

Finally, many Maine gun-owners simply believe that whether they have a concealed handgun permit is nobody’s business.

The entire tone of the editorial was one of anger and self-interest, not one of deliberative thought and reflection on an issue of pressing public concern that deserves dispassionate review by one of the state’s major media outlets.

To the paper’s clever sound-bite, “information doesn’t kill people, people kill people,” a play on the NRA’s famous slogan, I say this: does The Forecaster believe that it should have access to sensitive military information? If information doesn’t kill people, that shouldn’t be a problem. But we all know that it is.

It must frustrate a newspaper whose job is made easier by more access to records that Mainers demonstrated late last week and, through their representatives in the Legislature, that they care more about keeping their personal information private than about a newspaper’s ability to snoop through it.

To them, that’s worth creating FOAA exception No.484.

Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, serves on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.