Even Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was a bit confused over whether Connecticut’s gun permits were open records. In response to a reporter’s question last week, Malloy said those records have been open for a long time. Actually, they have not.
The public hasn’t been able to get lists of Connecticut pistol permit holders through the state’s Freedom of Information Act for nearly 20 years. In 1994, a little-noticed measure passed during a special session of the legislature. Without fanfare, gun registration permits were exempted from the FOIA, and neither the public nor press took much notice.
Now, in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, West Hartford state Rep. Stephen Dargan, co-chair of the Public Safety Committee, is proposing making that information public again. The entire topic went viral as a national issue recently when a Westchester County, N.Y., newspaper created an interactive web map showing which addresses in Rockland and Westchester counties were home to gun permit holders.
“Yellow journalism at its worst!” commented one reader. Some called the publication of names and addresses an open invitation to gun thieves, though others said households with firearms would be the least attractive place a burglar would choose. One fear was that lists of gun owners would help the government disarm the citizenry in some totalitarian future.
Dargan, in an interview, said he’s getting a storm of feedback from Connecticut residents. “I was taking a lot of phone calls from irate gun owners,” he said. “I got over 500 phone calls this past week. Not many people wanted to invite me out for a beer. Some wanted to invite me somewhere else.”
The calls weren’t exclusively negative. “I had teachers who called me and said, ‘Your point is well taken. I’m a teacher in high school with special needs kids who were acting up.’ They would like to know if the parent had a gun at home.”
Some gun proponents, said Dargan, contend they “weren’t worried about the people who registered guns, they were worried about those who hadn’t.”
Dargan said he’s not strongly advocating that gun permits become open records, but he’s inviting more thought: “Let’s have a public discussion,” he said.
He explained that prior to 1993, obtaining records of who has a gun permit was permissible under the FOI statute. Then, during the administration of Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., “there was some compromise when the legislature passed the assault weapon ban. So they took [gun registrations] out of the FOI statute.”
He noted that every year there is debate about adding exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act. As it stands, nearly every other license granted by the government is a public document. “Under the current laws your fishing license, your hunting license, your marriage license, your divorce file are all public records,” Dargan said.
Two Recent Cases
The state Freedom of Information Commission’s latest ruling on the availability of gun registration permits was issued just two days before the Sandy Hook shootings. On Dec. 12, the commission ruled that gun advocate Rich Burgess and his pro-Second Amendment group, Connecticut Carry Inc., were not entitled to records of permit applicants from the Stamford Police Department.
Just before that, on Nov. 14, the commission ruled that Edward Peruta could not have the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection fined for removing the names and addresses from pistol permit applications that were the subject of Peruta’s FOI request. Both cases were controlled by the 2007 decision in MariAn Gail Brown and the Connecticut Post v. Chief, Police Department, City of Bridgeport. The ruling states that the FOI law governing pistol permit exemption, Connecticut General Statutes §29-28d exempts from mandatory disclosure the names and addresses of: “persons whose applications are pending; persons whose applications have been approved; persons whose applications were initially denied but later approved on appeal; and persons whose applications were denied but who have pending appeals of such denials.”
According to Lisa Siegel, staff attorney for the FOIC, it has “held that the names and addresses of pending applications are not disclosable based on the reasoning that, to disclose the applications, would by necessity disclose those who become successful permit holders.” She added: “All you can get through FOI is the applications of denied applicants that have not been appealed.”
Sometimes state police have disclosed records of pending applications, but with all identifying information blacked out, Siegel said.
Rocky Hill resident Edward Peruta, an FOI activist, takes the position that pending gun permit applications are not covered by the permit exemption. He’s represented by Torrington lawyer Rachel Baird, whose practice includes freedom of information and firearms law. Last fall, she argued before the FOIC that gun permit applications are not the same as the actual permits, and should be open records for the purposes of an FOI request. In this regard, Baird and her client see the records as more open than the FOIC does.
Peruta has already started his appeal of the commission’s ruling to New Britain Superior Court in an effort to establish that pistol permit applications are open records. Baird said she was told that the FOIC had asked the legislature to clarify whether permit applications are public or not, and that the legislature did not do so. “There are a lot of reasons legislatures don’t amend the law, but this is an issue the legislature was made aware of, and they didn’t change it,” said Baird, adding, “To me, that supports our view.”•