The NRA Wants to Keep Gun Records Secret From Everyone Except the NRA

Legislators and gun rights advocates get really angry whenever nosy reporters try to use public records laws to find out who's packing heat. When the Westchester Journal News published an online map of local residents with handgun licenses last year, the paper was excoriated by the NRA and its allies; it eventually took the map down. When Gawker published a similar list—without addresses—of New York City handgun permit-holders last month, we were attacked by Fox News and received multiple death threats. And when the editor of the North Carolina Cherokee Scout dared to request—not publish, but merely request—similar data from his local sheriff, he was forced to apologize and resign; he plans to leave the state entirely.

All of which makes it more surprising that, according to a Gawker search of public records, gun-rights groups—including the National Rifle Association—have been accessing the same state gun-permit data for years to help their fundraising and recruitment efforts.

States across the nation have been rushing to change their gun laws to make gun permit information private, moves that have been furiously stoked by the NRA, which argues that the media has "no business possessing personal information" about gun owners. New York made gun information private earlier this year. Last week, Maine's governor signed an "emergency bill" shielding the identity of gun licensees after the Bangor Daily News—which was in the middle of a two-year investigation of domestic violence and drug abuse—backed down from a public records request for gun permit data. (Republican legislators had called an "emergency press conference" to shame the newspaper into submission.)

In Virginia, state lawmakers passed a bill to seal its gun permit records from public inspection. North Carolina may soon follow suit. A freshman lawmaker in Tennessee is pushing a similar bill in his statehouse.

But while the NRA has lately become one of the harshest critics of fourth estate access gun permit data—it has said "personal information regarding [permit] holders serves no public interest and only exposes law-abiding citizens to potential criminal acts" and places them at "risk to criminals who may target their home to steal firearms"—the group holds itself to a very different standard.

When Tennessee first tried to make gun records private in 2009, the effort died "amid fears that political groups and gun advocates would no longer be able to access addresses of handgun carry permit holders to add to their mailing list soliciting contributions," according to the Associated Press.

Indeed, in a survey of public records requests filed in 7 of the states that make (or formerly made) gun records public (we're still waiting on answers from 9 more), Gawker found multiple examples of the NRA and other conservative, "pro-gun" partisans seeking the lists for their own political and fundraising gain.

In 2009, for example, a North Carolina firm called Preferred Communications emailed the Virginia State Police to find out how much it could pay to buy a list of the state's gun permit holders. It was requesting the information on behalf of the NRA:

From: Michele Wood [xxxx@prefcom.net]
Sent: Mon 7/6/2009 11:15 AM
To: Tate, Donna K.
Subject: Concealed Weapons Permits 2008-2009 – VA

My name is Michelle Wood and I work for a company called Preferred Communications. I am inquiring on behalf of the National Rifle Association about your Concealed Weapons Permits. Do you allow these names on these Permits to be purchased?

Can you please let me know if you offer 2008 and/or 2009 names?
Can you please let me know the cost?
Can you please let me know the address to send the check to and also whom to make it payable to?
Can the names be sent via mail on a CD and is there an additional fee for the CD?

Another person who asked Virginia for gun records—though just for statistical data, rather than the actual names—was Robert Pew, a senior researcher for the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action. Pro-gun groups like the Virginia Gun Owners Coalition, the Virginia Citizens Defense League, and the Virginia Conservative Action PAC put in requests for the full names and addresses of permit holders. So did Rep. J. Randy Forbes, a Republican congressman from Virginia who received in "A" rating from the NRA. The individual snooping into gun owners' private lives on behalf of the Virginia Conservative Action PAC was Dave Dziok, who served as spokesman for Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).

In Tennessee, where the state's Department of Safety and Homeland Security maintains a database of gun permit owners, requesters have included the Tennessee Senate Group Republican Caucus and Self Defense Solutions, an NRA-certified firearm "training academy."

Similar requests from gun rights groups or conservative activists and political operatives turned up in Maine, Kentucky, and Louisiana. (In all the states we got data for, the requesters also included news outlets, lawyers, academics, voter targeting firms, marketing companies, and opposition researchers.)

One popular requester, who sought gun permit owners' names in at least four states, was a firm called Catalist, LLC-a private, D.C.-based firm that licenses its voter database to "Democratic and progressive" organizations. Barack Obama used it in 2008.

Few of the requesters we identified agreed to speak on-the-record, name their clients, or explain why they were so interested in obtaining the names and addresses of licensed gun owners. Most also declined to explain how the information—when they successfully obtained it from the government—was ultimately used.

Neither Andrew Arulanandam, the NRA's public affairs director, nor Stephanie Samford—the NRA spokeswoman who told the AP reporters have "no business" seeking gun owners' information—replied to our emails asking why the NRA had sought to obtain gun permit owners' names.

Privacy and gun advocates have commonly said that releasing gun owners' information invades their privacy, could endanger their safety and makes them easy targets for harassment by law enforcement and criminals (which seems like a strange argument coming from the people who—dubiously—say owning a gun makes you safer from criminals, but whatever).

On the flipside, transparency advocates have argued that keeping records open actually protects gun ownership rights, by giving the public a way to check if police and sheriffs are issuing gun permits fairly.

Aaron Mackey, an attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said the group estimates almost a dozen states that have introduced or passed some legislation to restrict access since the Journal News published its gun permit data.

He says the backlash is "confusing" two separate issues.

"The first is the right to access information," Mackey said. "The second is editorial propriety—whether it's proper to publish information in the way the Journal News did and whether that's responsible. Perhaps we should have a conversation about whether it's responsible, but that's a different question."

While you ponder that, here's a list of everyone who has requested private information about gun permit-holders in six states since 2003:

Arkansas
Steve Jones, Arkansas Carry (gun advocacy nonprofit)
Chad Day, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (journalist)
Andrew DeMillo, Associated Press (journalist)
Jacob Quinn Sanders, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (journalist)
Aaron Nobel, Heavy, Inc. (journalist)
Joe Hudak, Maumelle, AR

Virginia
Federation of American Scientists
Nick Kramer, Catalist LLC (political targeting firm)
Court Ventures (data brokerage firm; subsidiary of Experian)
Michele Wood, Preferred Communications (direct marketing firm; on behalf of NRA)
Paul K. Martin, Atlantic List Company (direct marketing firm)
Larry Zilliox, Investigative Research Specialists (private investigations and opposition research)
Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.)
Dave Dziok, Virginia Conservative Action PAC (political action committee)
Tim Johnson, (legislative assistant for Republican Del. Scott Lingamfelter, who won a "Civil Rights Defense" award from the NRA)
Michael Rentiers, Republican Party of Virginia
Aaron Larrimore, Democratic Party of Virginia
Mike McHugh, Virginia Gun Owners Coalition
Jim Snyder, Virginia Citizens Defense League
Jim Kadison, Virginia Citizens Defense League
George Pettit, Virginia Citizens Defense League

Joe Waldren, Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms
Gordon Hickey, Richmond Times-Dispatch (journalist)
Kyung Lah, CNN (journalist)
Style Weekly (alt weekly magazine)
Nicole Hendrix (criminal justice professor at Radford University)
Richard R. Harris
Louis Gifford
Thomas Miller
Clyde E. Clements, Lynchburg, VA
Ian B. Littlejohn, Dumfries, VA
TJ Parmele, Alexandria, VA
John M. Snyder, Alexandira, VA
Eric Payne, Richmond, VA
David Brgigman, Keezletown, VA
Cory Hutcheson, Lansing, MI
Judith Brown, Pittsburgh, PA

Tennessee
Shawn Harmon, E-Merges.com (data brokerage firm)
Jenny Farmer, Cyragon (political targeting firm)
Data Marketing Network (marketing firm)
Stephen Lindsey, Thomas Lindsey Group (political consulting firm)
Jordan Young, Tennessee Senate Group Republican Caucus
Don Charest, Self Defense Solutions (NRA-certified firearm training academy)
Walter Muskop, Tennessean (journalist)
Grant Smith, Commercial Appeal (journalist)
Judy Walton, Chattanooga Times Free Press (journalist)
Phil Williams, WTVF-TV (journalist)
Kim Barker, ProPublica (journalist)
Aaron Nobel, Heavy Inc. (journalist)
Beverly Knight
Lance Williams

Maine
Nick Kramer, Catalist LLC (political targeting firm)
Shawn Harmon, E-Merges.com (data brokerage firm)
Anne Horrigan, E-Merges.com (data brokerage firm)
Susan Young, Bangor Daily News (journalist)
Mark Anderson, Downeast Energy (utility company)
Celebration Connect

Kentucky
Nick Kramer, Catalist LLC (political targeting firm)

Louisiana
Nick Kramer, Catalist LLC (political targeting firm)
Shawn Harmon, E-Merges.com (data brokerage firm)
Andrew Biemer (Republican operative)
Bombet and Associates (private investigators)
Henninger Media Services (media post-production company)
David Armstrong (social sciences professor at McNeese State University)
Joseph Kutch (attorney)
Perry Stephens, WAFB (journalist)
The Baton-Rouge Advocate (newspaper)
William King
Ray Lucas
Travis Kelm
Derek Leroy McSmith
Terry Vallery
Thomas Gilmore

Michigan
Linda Friedland, Cummings, McClorey, Davis & Acho, PLC (attorney)

Sergio Hernandez, a former Gawker intern, is a reporter based in New York City. He can be reached at sergio@cerealcommas.com.

[Image by Jim Cooke]