Montana AG Denies Associated Press Request for Records on All Concealed Weapons Permit Holders

Montana Republican Attorney General Tim Fox has denied requests by the Associated Press (AP) and a Boston news organization, MuckRock News, for a list of the names and addresses of all concealed weapons permit (CWP) holders in the state.

Fox explained the decision to not disclose the information in a memo dated July 17 that was sent out to every county attorney and county sheriff in Montana. The memo was obtained by Aaron Flint of the Northern Broadcasting System and posted on his blog, “The Flint Report,” yesterday. John Barnes, a spokesman for Fox’s office, confirmed to Media Trackers that both the AP and MuckRock News had placed the request for highly personal information regarding state CWP holders.

“Recently, the Montana Department of Justice (DOJ) has received requests for all information regarding concealed weapon permit (CWP) holders in Montana, including, without limitation, the name, address, date of birth, employer, date of application, and drivers license number of each permit holder,” states the memo. “The Attorney General’s Office has notified the requestors informally that the privacy of permit holders exceeds the public’s right to know.”

Fox stated that the requests from AP and MuckRock asked for much more detail than was reasonable given privacy protections written into the state’s constitution. Fox emphasized that such a broad and detailed request on every single CWP holder — as the AP and MuckRock had requested — violated the Montana Constitution’s “reasonable expectation to privacy” clause.

“Recent requests, in contrast, seek broad disclosure of personal information and the identities of presumptively law abiding Montana citizens,” Fox wrote.

The memo also points out that the entire object of obtaining a concealed weapon permit is to conceal, rather than reveal, the fact that an individual may be armed.

During the 2013 Session, the GOP-controlled Montana state legislature passed and Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock signed SB 145, a bill that would explicitly make all information pertaining to CWP holders confidential. The bill was seen as a response to the publishing of the names and addresses of of gun permit holders in two New York counties by The New York Journal in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting last December. The bill does not take effect until October 1.

In a telephone interview with Media Trackers Montana, Montana Shooting Sports Association President Gary Marbut spoke about the vital importance of keeping CWP holders’ information private and said this incident shows the importance of passing legislation such as SB 145.

“First of all, there is no good reason to publish that information,” Marbut stated. “Montana is also the only state that has a constitution that explicitly guarantees the right to privacy.”

What Marbut emphasized most, however, was that publishing the information would put many CWP holders at risk.

“It can also put certain people at risk,” he said. “Think of an abused woman who has to take out a restraining order. You don’t want the abuser to know that she has a gun. There is also a tactical advantage to a potential assailant not knowing if their target is armed.”

Marbut also worried that publishing such lists would show criminals locales where there are few, if any, guns.

MuckRock News is based in Boston and claims that it works to help other news agencies and journalists obtain public records. It was founded by Mitch Kotler and Michael Morisy, who helped break the stories about Ground Zero workers becoming ill in aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and gained notoriety in 2010 when it revealed that $800,000 of Massachusetts food stamp money had been spent at expensive, high-end Whole Foods Markets.

Correction 7/25/2013 at 5:56 PM: Removed the clause from the opening sentence of the fourth paragraph ”While the Montana Department of Justice generally considers names and towns of CWP holders to be public information.” This was the policy of a previous administration, but not the current policy of the Montana DOJ.

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