Gun-ownership records kept by the state could soon be inaccessible to the public, under a bill making its way through the Legislature.
The measure, A-3788/S-2522, meant to protect gun owners’ personal information, has garnered unanimous support so far and is awaiting a committee hearing in the Senate.
It would create an exemption under the Open Public Records Act for "personal firearms records, except for any person authorized by law to have access to these records or for use by any government agency, including any court or law enforcement agency, for purposes of the administration of justice."
Firearms records are defined as gun-purchase permits, firearms identification card licenses and firearms registrations; applications for those permits; background checks in connection with the applications; documentation of application denial; and other documents.
An OPRA provision generally preserving common-law rights of access to records would be amended to provide that "any common-law right of access to a personal firearms record is abolished."
OPRA would be amended to note that public agencies are responsible for safeguarding information from public access "when disclosure thereof would jeopardize personal or public safety."
The legislation comes in reaction to The Journal News of White Plains, N.Y., which posted an online interactive map displaying names and addresses of permit holders in Westchester and Rockland counties last December, about a week after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn.
The information was obtained through public records requests. The newspaper removed the map in January amid criticism from gun-rights advocates and law enforcement organizations.
Bill sponsors claim the map allowed gun owners to be targeted for theft or burglaries, jeopardized law enforcement and corrections officers by publishing their home addresses and alerted perpetrators of domestic violence to their victims’ whereabouts.
A regulation, N.J.A.C. 13:54-1.15, already provides that permits and other firearms documentation are confidential, but the sponsors say they are concerned about potential access through common law.
In Southern New Jersey Newspapers v. Twp. of Mount Laurel, 141 N.J. 56 (1995), the state Supreme Court said firearms records could be accessible and established a balancing test to weigh the parties’ competing interests. The court remanded the case — which involved denial of a gun-records request by the Courier Post of Cherry Hill that was upheld on appeal — and no subsequent published case law "has definitively resolved the issue," the sponsors say in the statement that accompanies their bill.
The legislation was introduced on Feb. 7 and progressed quickly. The sponsorship is mostly Republican but includes some Democrats.
The Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee approved the measure in a 10-0 vote on Feb. 13 during a seven-hour hearing at which lawmakers also considered a package of gun-control measures.
The bill generated little discussion that day compared with the other bills, but a handful of people, mostly individuals, showed their support.
No one appeared in opposition, though the New Jersey Press Association (NJPA) filed a statement calling the change unnecessary and duplicative of the regulation, and contending that the balancing test in Southern New Jersey Newspapers sufficiently safeguards privacy rights.
"Access to ‘personal firearms records,’ when appropriate under the common law, is important, not only for the public’s protection, but also for the public’s education," NJPA executive director George White wrote.
"Thus, A-3788‘s creation of an absolute curtain of secrecy … is simply unwarranted and contrary to the Legislature’s goal of transparency in government," he added.
The full Assembly approved the legislation on Feb. 21 in a 77-0 vote.
In the Senate, the measure initially was referred to the Community and Urban Affairs Committee but on Monday was transferred to the Law and Public Safety Committee.
No hearing was scheduled as of Tuesday, and the earliest possible hearing date is May 20, a legislative staffer says.
Co-sponsor Ronald Dancer, R-Burlington, says in some instances law enforcement officers were harassed at their homes by convicted criminals who had found their addresses using the Journal News map.
He acknowledges that firearms records already are difficult to obtain, but "when it comes to someone threatening legal action, you’re going to turn over the records."
The primary Assembly sponsor, David Rible, R-Monmouth, a retired Wall Township police officer, did not return a call.