Your home may be a gun-free zone, but the neighbors could be armed to the teeth, with a pistol stashed in a nightstand, and a semiautomatic rifle in the basement. The same neighbors who sometimes invite your kids over to play with their kids. But unless they choose to tell you about their weapons cache, there’s no way of knowing. In Massachusetts, like most other states, gun permit data are not made available to the public. Even Florida, which has one of the country’s most liberal public records laws, makes an exception for gun ownership records. They’re kept out of sight.
The gun lobby, powered by the National Rifle Association, has succeeded in pressuring states to keep — or make — the names and addresses of gun owners off limits, citing a right to privacy. But it’s no secret that guns are everywhere, including in more than one-third of US households with children under age 18, according to the Pew Research Center. There’s a compelling public interest in making available more details about their location. Knowing that there were more than 350,000 active gun licenses in Massachusetts — as of last year — or even knowing the number of licenses per capita by community, isn’t specific enough to be of any use.
Gun advocates worry about the unintended consequences of opening up access to ownership records. Some argue it would make them vulnerable to theft, though it’s doubtful that many thieves would risk breaking into a home whose residents are potentially armed. Critics of making permit information available also say it stigmatizes legal gun ownership. A newspaper in Westchester, N.Y., faced major blowback after publishing names and addresses of licensed gun owners in two local counties, following the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. – even though the paper had the right to publish under the law at the time.
Massachusetts should enhance its already strong gun laws by allowing public access to gun permits, following the procedures already in place for requesting public records under the Freedom of Information Act. There could also be exemptions for law enforcement officials, victims of domestic violence, and others who might be compromised by having their gun permit data open for public viewing.
Making gun records public isn’t intended to malign permit-holders, nor does it imply that they represent a threat. If anything, increasing access to information about the whereabouts of firearms may keep people from succumbing to irrational fear at a time when reason is in short supply.