Cold feet, hot heads on guns

Press releases
By JEFF INGLIS  |  March 7, 2013

Last month, the Bangor Daily News lost its courage after an initially outstanding statewide public-records request for information on who holds permits to carry concealed weapons in Maine.

Made of every police agency in the state that issues such permits, the BDN request was part of the paper's ongoing effort to reveal the impact of domestic violence, sexual assault, and drug abuse in Maine. All are newsworthy topics, and firearm accessibility — legal and illegal — is relevant to understanding them.

But when the paper asked for the information the backlash went national — even though several police chiefs acknowledged it was public, and despite the BDN's assurances it was not going to publish a directory of permit holders' names and addresses.

Instead of standing its ground on the basis of free information and newsworthiness, the BDN retracted its request the day after issuing it, bowing to the pressure while lamenting its existence, and simultaneously abdicating its journalistic role. In announcing its decision to exit the debate over public access to government record about guns, BDN news director Tony Ronzio wrote: "It's clear that as a state, and as a nation, we still have much to do to generate light in this debate, instead of heat." It's extremely disappointing that the BDN melted, allowing the darkness to continue.

And continue it will: lawmakers in both parties, with the support of Republican Governor Paul LePage, passed an "emergency" bill making concealed-weapons permits, which have been public records for more than three decades, secret for two months. Of course, the secrecy doesn't extent to hunting licenses or moose-lottery applications, which are also public government records relating to gun ownership. The stated hope was that cooler heads might prevail over time, bringing light and not just heat to the debate.

There has been the distracting suggestion by George Smith that the permit requirement should be abolished. Smith, the former head of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, is now a columnist for the Kennebec Journal, may well have a point. But that's a very different debate than whether government records should be open to the public. Arguing they should be secret because they shouldn't exist sounds positively Nixonian.

And then there's the hypocrisy. The Portland Press Herald and Gawker (separately) got information that there have been several other requests from state officials for this information. Gawker reported that most of the requests in Maine and around the country are from political-consulting and data-mining firms, including some companies acting on behalf of the National Rifle Association, which has vehemently opposed the release of that same information to the media.

Missing, of course, is the cool-headed result of a 2010 study presented at Harvard University's Workshop on the Economics of Information Security. Turns out publishing names, ages, and home ZIP codes of permit holders causes crime to drop in their neighborhoods.

• The court ruling saying Robert Smith, a/k/a the Whistler, CANNOT WHISTLE WHILE STANDING STILL (he can whistle, but only while walking) is an outrageous frontal assault on the First Amendment. The slope this ruling inclines toward is likely to slip out beneath buskers, street artists, panhandlers, the Preacher, the peace folks in Monument Square (and sign-holding protesters anywhere in town), the very idea of "Occupy," the protesters (and counter-protesters) outside Planned Parenthood, and anybody else who wants to say or do anything in public spaces.

On the thin premise that someone expressing himself (even obnoxiously) in a nearby public area somehow "hurts" private businesses — which remain empowered to bar objectionable people from their actual property — government power has been directed at quashing free public expression.

I don't think the guy is any more tuneful than you do — or than I would be — but it's not right for the government to determine the value, quality, location, or movement of his speech.

  Topics: News Features , Libby Mitchell, Paul Lepage, Cynthia Dill
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