Support the Bill of Rights — all of them

One of the neat things about the Constitution is its durability and steadfastness. You don’t look at the Bill of Right and decide that one is more important than the other. States can’t pick and choose parts of it they want to follow or ignore, even though they occasionally do. When there is conflict, well, that’s what the U.S. Supreme Court is for.

That was my thinking when I read about the hubbub caused by the posting on WRAL’s site of a search form to find people with conceal-carry handgun permits. The permits are public records, and, like marriage licenses, divorces, birth certificates, criminal records and land transfers, they are available to anyone who wants to see them.

Of all of those public records, which are the most private? The birth of a child? A failed marriage? Nope. Gun ownership. At least it is based on the uproar about making the records easy to find. There’s something about guns that gets people going. (Thank you, NRA.)

The WRAL action making concealed-carry permits easy to search has caused some to criticize the TV station, saying the action is an invasion of privacy and could endanger the lives of lawful, gun-owning citizens. I haven’t seen any evidence that such availability of public records endangers lives, but I suspect it is possible that lives are endangered whenever at least one party has access to a handgun.

One blogger — anonymous, of course — personalized it with a blog post titled “First Blood,” that calls out Mark Binker, the writer of the news story on the growth of concealed-carry permits. I know Mark Binker. He used to work for me. I doubt he is bothered one way or the other by any backwash in the publication of the search tool.

I won’t weigh in on WRAL’s motivations. As a First Amendment advocate, I think public records means records are public. They should be easy to get to. If someone wants to make them searchable, that’s the way of the world these days. Why, there are tabloids that print the names and photos of everyone who has been arrested. That’s certainly an invasion, too. It may not be nice, but it’s legal.

It is ironic, though, that staunch defenders of the Second Amendment have trouble defending the First Amendment.

Update: Another site — I’m not going to link to it — writes a bio of Binker culled from information in the public domain and encourages its readers to contact him politely and let him know their disappointment that the station published the search tool. It’s a fascinating ethical question that I’m sure doesn’t occur to the site’s writer — again anonymous.

You object to putting public information out in the public. You think it is wrong and dangerous. As a result, you do the exact same thing and go a step further by encouraging people to take action by contacting someone?

18 thoughts on “Support the Bill of Rights — all of them

  1. If they’re public records, what exactly is the problem? I see no reason why they shouldn’t be electronically searchable. I do think there are things that shouldn’t be a matter of public record, but that’s a separate issue.

  2. So this is a first amendment issue, really? Last time I checked the 1st Amendment said:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

    So where in there does it point out that a list of addresses can be made searchable? It does say that CONGRESS cannot abridge the freedom of speech or press (and of course religion), but nowhere do I see which records should and can be made searchable in a database format.

    WRAL decided the list of CHP should be available, but nowhere do I see anything which indicates CONGRESS was involved at any point during the publication of the list of addresses. What WRAL has done is essentially create a Google search for criminals. It provides streets where criminals may find firearms as well as streets where criminals may not find armed citizens.

    The individuals included have followed every step of the law only to find out those records are public. They attended 8 hours of classwork, qualified on the range, spent at least $80 for the application, $10 for fingerprinting and underwent a background check by the sheriff’s department as well as the SBI.

    WRAL has not published a list of felons, only a list of law abiding citizens. Did they publish a list of hair stylists, professional engineers, surveyors, breweries, wineries, overweight permits, air quality permits, abc permits, stormwater permits, etc. No, they chose to limit their online database to law abiding citizens. Why not spend useful time publishing a list of felons or a list of sex offenders of a list of journalists? Let’s provide street names without addresses for all the above and then no one group will feel slighted.

    Now I will say Mr. Binker wrote a decent article about concealed handguns, but he did have some facts in error and the mashbang post shed light on his errors. But the line was crossed when they published a list of CHP holders which could potentially endanger citizens in the viewing area. There can be no doubt Mr. Binker was not phased by commentary on his article and database, in fact he probably is pleased he and Mrs. Hinchcliffe have raised the eyebrows of several viewers. The line is drawn when they had had request the info, compile the info and then publish and host the info for public consumption. If criminals figure out the gift they have been given I certainly hope I don’t live on a street they target.

    Lastly I see a lot of debate about conservative and liberal on various websites. To nip that in the bud I am a registered Democrat, now perhaps an intelligent conversation on the topic can being…

    • Really? Your argument is that the Constitution does not say public records should be searchable? It doesn’t mention hand guns either, by the way, so…. Anyway, the records are public because the legislature and the courts say they are. They are searchable because they are public.

      If you have evidence that making the records public leads to crime, please share it.

      • I’m actually not making an argument, I’m really trying to have a discussion. I think those words are interchanged far too often in today’s society. It might be why most of the people on cable news scream since they believe it will eventually make their point valid.

        Let’s head in a slightly different direction. When the database first published several addresses had their street number included and that information was eventually redacted, why exactly? Did WRAL feel it might make some a target for crime?

        Now of course you are correct no crime has yet been committed which can be attributable to this database, but suppose one does happen, or two, or ten, at what point would you scratch your chin and say, wow, maybe we shouldn’t have published the database? When did we become a society that let’s a potential crime occur when we have the power to stop it?

        You are also correct that the records are public, you are incorrect as to the reason why they are searchable. They are searchable because someone at WRAL thought it would be a good idea since they already had the data. The story has some factual errors and poor terminology, but as a story and with the map it is a good one and IMO is fair. The issue is really the database. They had the data and decided to publish without any meaningful thought to their actions.

  3. Thanks for this post.

    The same sort of reaction happened when the Sacramento Bee posted a database of teacher salaries for California school districts a few years ago. Some objected it was an invasion of privacy. Others called it an invitation to identity theft, even though there was no evidence that criminals were attempting to use the database that way.

    The notion of public records will always make some people uncomfortable, usually those with something to hide or in positions of power. I hope that news organizations will resist pressure from these people and continue to provide access to public information.

  4. Gotcha. I can’t represent WRAL on why it included and then removed street numbers.

    Your question about potential crimes that could be prevented is an interesting one. Unfortunately, under that logic, most behavior would be dangerous, right? For instance, I could say that allowing people to carry concealed hand guns into restaurants and bars could cause crime and, worse, death. I have no data supporting that, but banning it could prevent a crime. But I’m guessing you’d oppose that?

    I would disagree that they became searchable with WRAL. Anyone can walk to the courthouse, ask for the permits and search them. WRAL has made them more accessible, but that’s about it.

    • I saw a response from Jim Rothschild who is the station manager at WRAL so we can now determine why the data was redacted with certainty:
      “Concealed weapon permit holders’ personal information has always been part of the public record, including name and street numbers. We understand the potential concerns with posting that specific information and we proactively stripped the 78,000 file database of that information. ”
      So it appears WRAL understood the potential for harm. No doubt this admission will be fodder for litigation should someone be harmed.

      Actually there is no definition of “bar” in the NC Statutes. Now one can carry in a restaurant which is not posted and does not serve alcohol. Mostly that would include fast food and some family restaurants. One CANNOT carry under the current law into any establishment where alcohol is served (not sold, served). I actually have no problem with someone carrying in those places so long as they adhere to the portion of the law which states if they are drinking or have ANY residual alcohol in their system they are not allowed to concealed carry. I do not believe it is wise to allow someone to drink and conceal and those laws already exist. I also don’t think someone going into an Applebee’s for dinner would become any more of a public threat than they were in a Golden Corral, McDonalds, Taco Bell, etc.

      Actually I don’t believe anyone can walk to the courthouse and get those records (if I am wrong, please correct me and detail the process). I believe you have to go to the NCDOJ and present ID with the request.

  5. My point about bars and restaurants was only to suggest that the “potential” for harm is everywhere. It wasn’t to argue the point except to say that if you look to the future and say, “hey, it’s possible that a crime against a gun permit holder could occur therefore we shouldn’t publish names of gun permit holders” then the same holds true elsewhere.

    My experience has been that the local courthouse keeps the records, but I, too, could be wrong. But my point remains the same. The records are available and searchable. They just have to be done in person.

    • Mr. Binker tweeted the CC database is:
      “available from ncdoj upon request but not online in its raw form.”

    • Those are gun permits, not concealed handgun permits, and at one time some newspapers listed when they were issued. I still have a permit which has long since expired which was issued in 1988 or 1989. I think the practice ceased with the advent of cyber criminals and identity theft and also when the list became too long to offset the costs incurred to publish. I don’t know what the volume would look like in say Wake County, but I am told they often have a line. I can imagine with newspaper cutbacks the decision was made to no longer publish the information.

      I searched the Statues and the Sheriff is required to maintain a list of permit holders and to make the list available to law enforcement agencies, but it doesn’t state if the list can be provided in a public record search. The SBI holds all the records and it the most likely source of the raw data compiled for the WRAL database.

      One more interesting tidbit, when the database was first released it was a statewide database and very quickly was truncated to only include the counties in the WRAL viewing area. I’m still scratching my head about that one.

  6. Here a couple of more interesting databases:

    — The N&O has posted one that allows you to search contributions to the Dalton and McCrory campaigns. You can search by individual name, employer, county, etc.

    http://www.newsobserver.com/ncgov/

    — Wake County has had its real-estate records online for years. When I worked at the N&O, some of my co-workers used it to find out how much the publisher and top editors paid for their houses.

    http://services.wakegov.com/realestate/

    • That first link is interesting – Name, City, County, Zip – (? ever wonder why they left off the street ?) Wanna have some real fun with that link, click on Clay County on the interactive map. Yep, $400 in total – but I digress.

      Almost every county has searchable real estate records. IMO they often provide too much information. When I refinanced my home I was getting unsolicited mail as a result of people searching the records. Also happens every time you buy a property or start a business nowadays. I despise that your signature is often displayed, sure it is public record, but why have a digitized image readily available for the criminal element.

      • Regarding real-estate records, the same thing happens with records of traffic violations and car accidents. My car was rear-ended several years ago, and within a few days, I began to receive junk mail from attorneys.

        I am willing to put up with that inconvenience. The police report of the accident is a public record, and lawyers have a right to advertise their services.

  7. I think this in an incredibly important conversation to have because we cannot allow people to strong arm reporters into becoming hesitant to report information. The true facts are that in the database of thousands of entries there were a handful of cells that had partial street numbers and two that had apartment numbers in the same cell of the database as the street name. These were stripped out by hand in a matter of minutes after the DB was live.

    From an editorial perspective the DB was an interesting tool to use in telling a multimedia story. I think the reporter and WRAL exercised caution in not publishing all the available info such as name, DOB, street number, etc. and performed further due diligence in editing out numerical data which was not intended to be in the tool in the first place.

    The paranoid reaction to the story in question is sickening and not at all something that should take place in a civilized republic.

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