By: Chas Sisk
A Middle Tennessee lawmaker is renewing efforts to close off the state's records of who can carry handguns, this time in the wake of the Connecticut school shooting.
State Rep. William Lamberth, R-Cottontown, has filed a measure that would make the state's list of people with permits to carry a handgun in public off limits to the media and the general public, a move that could rekindle a debate that last erupted in the state legislature nearly four years ago.
Lamberth, a former Sumner County prosecutor sworn into the legislature this month, said such information could be used by burglars to identify potential targets.
"I do not want folks who are simply exercising their Second Amendment rights ... to all of a sudden, literally, be on a list used to create more crimes or to create more victims," he said.
But the legislation, House Bill 9, is already drawing criticism from advocates for open records because it would close off all information collected on handgun carry permit holders, including names and addresses.
Such information, they say, has been used by victims of domestic abuse to find out if their partners plan to obtain weapons, by news organizations interested in investigating crime patterns, and by others with legitimate questions about gun ownership.
"I'm looking at it from the perspective of the general public and their ability to address concerns about neighbors and associates and whether or not they're carrying," said Kent Flanagan, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.
The bill could lead lawmakers to reprise a debate that last rocked the legislature in 2009. Then, several lawmakers filed bills to close handgun records after a wave of complaints from gun rights advocates about a pair of searchable databases published by The Tennessean and The Commercial Appeal in Memphis.
Both newspapers obtained the information through the state's Open Records Act.
A bill to close the records passed the state House of Representatives, but it unexpectedly failed to get the 17 votes needed to pass the Senate. Lawmakers realized the measure not only would have blocked news organizations from gathering the information but also would have made it illegal for them to access it.
A few months after the measure failed, the Tennessee Republican Party and a direct mail contractor requested the records for use in their voter identification efforts.
Measures to close handgun records have been filed since 2009, but none has posed a serious threat to their openness. The entire state database can be obtained from the Department of Safety and Homeland Security for an $80.60 fee, a spokeswoman said.
John Harris, executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, said his organization will ask Lamberth to consider amendments that would let campaigns and other groups use the state's database without releasing the gun owners' information.
"We're very much in support of the concept of closing the database," Harris said.
Maps caused stir
Lamberth said he developed his measure by himself, without consulting the TFA or other firearms groups.
He said he knew little about the 2009 debate but came up with the bill after the Journal News of White Plains, N.Y., published a series of maps showing the home addresses of people in two upstate New York counties who had pistol permits. The maps were part of an investigation into gun ownership in the region after the killing of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
(The Journal News is owned by Gannett Co. Inc., which also publishes The Tennessean.)
"When the paper in New York put that map online, what they created is a buffet list," Lamberth said. "That's what I do not want to permit in Tennessee. ... It's very cheap software, and it's very easy to do."
Lamberth conceded he could not cite any examples of criminals who had used the data to identify targets.
Flanagan said there is little evidence to suggest a link between crime and handgun records.
"This bill does not address a problem of any significance in my opinion," he said. "If I was a criminal and thinking about breaking in, and I knew you had firearms in your home, I'd think twice about breaking in."