By KENT FLANAGAN
The handgun carry permit registry maintained by the state Department of Safety has been open for public review since 1996 without any proof that public access has endangered any registrant.
However, some gun owners protest that the open records violate their privacy and the Legislature is debating a law to close general access to the registry.
What privacy issue do they mean?
Thousands of firearms are purchased every year in Tennessee, yet the only weapons that are registered in the state database are for the privilege of carrying handguns openly or concealed in public. The database does not include the many thousands of other handguns, shotguns and rifles that citizens have a right to maintain in the privacy of their homes without registration.
This is not about Second Amendment rights. It is about personal privilege on one narrow issue involving weapons.
Some pro-gun advocates hold the strong belief that we would all be safer if everyone carried a weapon. But I doubt that the majority of Tennesseans who do not have carry permits agree or they would have signed up for permits to carry weapons in public.
In fact, many believe that the presence of a private citizen carrying a handgun in a public place can provoke extreme unease to the extent that anyone unarmed may feel threatened. The ancient Greeks would not allow the carrying of spears and swords inside the walls of their city states for that very reason. Sheriffs and marshals in our own frontier towns often required visitors leave their six-shooters at the jail.
Today in Tennessee, nearly 400,000 citizens have permits to carry handguns in public. But how do the rest of the citizens of the state know if anyone carrying a handgun actually has a permit to carry that weapon? Without access to the database, they cannot know for certain.
Earlier this year, a review by The Associated Press of suspended and revoked gun carry permits found that 4,332 people had lost their carry permits over the past five years. Nineteen percent lost their permits permanently while the rest were suspended temporarily.
Legislation to close the registry faces one final vote in the Senate next week. It would still allow citizens the limited ability to check people facing felony charges to see if they hold permits to carry handguns. But it would not allow a search for such information for people on misdemeanor charges such as State Rep. Curry Todd, whose permit was suspended after he pleaded guilty to DUI in January.
The public registry was created 17 years ago after the public learned that handgun permits were sometimes given secretly as political favors by local sheriffs. The state of Tennessee then decided that the public welfare required that the state regulate the possession of firearms in public.
It is still in the best interest of the people of Tennessee that public access to the database continue for the sake of transparency and open government.
The admonition of the late Carl A. Jones, publisher of the Johnson City Press, rings as true today as it did when it became the slogan of the newspaper decades ago: “What the people don’t know will hurt them.”
Kent Flanagan is executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, dedicated to preserve and promote access to public information. He can be reached at (615) 957-2825 or firstname.lastname@example.org.