Last year, the San Francisco Chronicle submitted a government records request to nearby counties for information about individuals who had applied for and obtained a concealed-weapons permit. The journalists’ goal was not to expose those individuals but to understand whether there were patterns in how gun licenses were being given out that might endanger the public. Under state law, the counties were legally required to turn over the information.
But one county sheriff took to Facebook to alert the public of the request and sent a letter to each permit holder that his office was about to release their personal information to the Chronicle. You can guess what happened next. The reporter and the newspaper received threats of violence — so many that security had to be increased in the newsroom.
It’s an old story: How do you balance the public’s right to know if their neighbors own guns vs. gun owners’ privacy rights?
Following the horrific Newtown, Conn., mass shooting in 2012, a neighboring suburban newspaper in New York tried to give readers that information, publishing an interactive map revealing the names and addresses of handgun permit holders in two counties. But the paper received intense backlash, and gun advocates successfully pushed for legislation to broadly limit the disclosure of gun ownership records under New York’s law. Similar news features ran in North Carolina and Virginia, only to end up either redacted or retracted after fiery backlash.
But there’s a case for making at least some gun licensing information public — and not so members of the public can keep tabs on guns that might be in their neighborhood. Last week’s apparent hate crime in Winthrop, where a man armed with two guns shot and killed two people, raises questions about transparency around gun permitting records. That lack of public information about gun permit-holders makes it harder to judge how well the police chiefs who issue those permits are using their authority, and to hold them accountable when they make the wrong call. The shooter, who was gunned down by police, had a license to carry. Yet little is known about who the licensing authority was in this case and how that decision was made.
Here’s another reason why full secrecy may not be a good idea: Gun license applications in the Commonwealth have been on the rise in recent years. In 2020, applications doubled to more than 54,000 — more than the previous two years combined. Massachusetts allows prospective gun owners to apply for a six-year license to carry at the local police department where they live or have their place of business. Convicted felons are disqualified. And even after an applicant pays a fee and meets other requirements (such as passing a safety course), local police can still deny the license. That’s because there is a measure of flexibility that resides with local police chiefs — a standard of suitability — built into the process.
“In my view, police chiefs have a high level of discretion,” said state Representative David Linsky, who has been involved in gun prevention legislation on Beacon Hill. For instance, “some departments do extensive social media searches [on the applicant] while others don’t,” Linsky said. “It really does vary from department to department.”
“There’s a bit of judgment, but it’s not unfettered judgment,” said William Brooks, the chief of police in Norwood. In the end, the vast majority of applications are granted. Still, even gun rights advocates themselves have sometimes grumbled about the mysteries of a gun-permitting process that’s so reliant on individual chiefs’ decisions.
For his part, Brooks feels strongly that opening up permit records does not serve the public interest. Disclosing who legally owns a gun and where they live would make those homes more likely to get broken into. “It becomes easier for criminals to steal from a home than from gun stores,” said Brooks.
Maybe. As with many things around gun control, though, there is little data to guide us, much less any proof that burglaries would increase if records became publicly available. Clearly, there are some scenarios where public disclosure would be harmful (domestic violence victims, for instance). But it’s just as plausible to imagine crooks will be less likely to break into homes if they know the resident is armed. To further protect gun owners, records would also not need to indicate precisely what kind of firearm a permit-holder owns. The point of the disclosures is not to expose individual gun owners but to help reveal patterns of law enforcement decisions to issue licenses that may not be in the public interest.
Most gun permit information remains in the dark because most states have higher legislative priorities around gun reform. Even in Massachusetts, which has one of the most restrictive laws in the country, the issue of transparency has never risen to the top. “Gun violence legislation is very difficult to accomplish, so we try to pursue whatever would have the highest effect,” said Linsky. Opening records of firearm licenses to the public, Linksy said, would perhaps improve gun safety “in the area of accidental shootings, but we think it’d be marginal.”
Massachusetts relies on police chiefs as the gatekeepers for gun ownership in this state and, in general, they seem to be doing a good job. But at the very least, it should be possible to find out where and how a criminal received his permit — and privacy rights cannot be cited as an excuse when, as in the Winthrop case, a shooter dies in the course of committing a crime.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.