Buried within New York states just-enacted gun control law were provisions that limit public information about one class of people and opens the door to further limits on access to public records.
The bill allows handgun-permit holders to block release of their names and addresses under a Freedom of Information Law request. The provision was an overreaction to The Journal News in Westchester County publishing an interactive map with the names and address of pistol permit holders in Rockland and Westchester counties.
Angry law enforcement personnel lashed out at the paper alleging publication put their lives at risk by letting criminals know where they lived without evidence of that happening. However, Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell used their claims to justify inserting in Marks Law a provision putting the names of pistol permit holder off limits in FOIL requests. The proposal was endorsed by Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie.
The gun law identifies several groups that can now block release of their names including law enforcement officials, victims of domestic violence, people who have served on a grand jury and those who fear for their safety or are concerned about harassment.
The last is a very broad and vague category that could be used to justify restrictions on other public records or information. For example, dont release the names of delinquent taxpayers who might be harassed or fear for their safety as well?
First-time pistol permit applicants will be able to check an opt out box on their license application. However, for the first 120 days of the new law, all public access to gun license information will be blocked to allow current permit holders to fill out an opt-out form at their county clerks office. The statewide database on gun owners and ammunition sales required in the law will also be closed to the public.
Just how far restrictions on public records can be carried can be seen in Onondaga County. County Executive Joanie Mahoney had ordered the county website on property tax rolls changed so it could not be searched by name out of concern criminals might use the site to track down law enforcement personnel. She has since backed off, but is still considering alternatives. One would extend preferential treatment to law enforcement officers. They could request that their names be excluded from a search by name.
The restrictions overlook the ease with which information can be obtained through the Internet or other sources. Pistol permit data has always been accessible and available, and there is no justifiable reason for restricting it now.
The Legislature should revisit the law and remove the provisions closing off the public record.