West Virginia lawmakers are flirting with an idea that will make government more opaque, more secret – and take away at least one piece of the public’s right to know. House Bill 4310 is summarized as “making gun permits and applications confidential except for law enforcement purposes.” Further explanation in section S shows that means such records are “not subject to disclosure,” or rather, exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.
If legislators want to give the appearance of operating behind closed doors and flying in the face of some basic freedoms, this bill is a step in that direction. Of course, making public records exempt from disclosure is a bit of a slap at the press, despite a First Amendment to the Constitution that says “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Taking away the ability of the press to examine hand-picked public records is a fairly blatant abridgment. If the U.S. Constitution is not relevant enough for the folks in Charleston, the more recent Freedom of Information Act reminds them that, as public servants, they do not have the “right to decide what is good for the people to know, and what is not good for them to know.”
It is worth considering who legislators think they are protecting with such a measure. Gun owners and concealed-weapons permit holders? Not likely. Records of permits and applications have been public and available to the press up to this point. West Virginians have not suffered because of abuse of that availability, in this state. Might they, then, simply be pandering to lobbyists or other public officials who seek this veil of secrecy for reasons we have not yet realized? That seems far more likely.
Worse, this bill could be used as a foot in the door for politicians who hope to slowly take away other freedoms they believe are inconvenient. If they are allowed to take away the public’s right to see one set of records, what is to stop them from chipping away at a few others?
Legislators should drop their attempt to conceal public records immediately. No matter who they believe they are serving by putting in place such an obvious restriction of freedoms, it is clear supporters of this bill are not looking to serve the general public.