This week we decided to look further into the state statutes that determine what personal information is public and shareable, and what information isn’t.
In the ongoing saga over the state providing federal investigators with a list of 163,000 concealed carry permit holders in the state, the fallout continues. Republican Senator Kurt Schaefer of Columbia says Missouri’s Division of Motor Vehicles will remain unfunded in proposals for next year’s state budget unless the Nixon Administration cooperates with his committee’s investigation into the matter. The Director of the Department of Revenue resigned just over a week ago amid the controversy over the closed records.
Meantime, a Missouri House panel has endorsed legislation making it illegal to share the list of concealed weapons permit holders in the state. The bill endorsed Monday by a House committee would also free license office clerks from legal liability if they were sued for following department rules.
Here’s a thought, though. Even if that went into place, let’s say the federal government did want to find out who has guns in Missouri. Under state law, the feds could still easily get a list of Missouri hunting permits, including personal identifying information on those permits. So that’d be a decent lead for the feds. And of course, there’s a trove of other personal information that Missourians give to the government, that can legally be used in a number of ways, by governments and the public.
When Americans provide personal information to government agencies to get government issued licenses, their information is made into a government record. Some of those government records are accessible to the public while others are kept private to protect citizen’s information. Voter registration information is available to the public in Missouri unless one requests to keep it private and this varies by state. Before getting into the nitty gritty of what records are available to the public and what records are not Washington University Professor of Law Neil Richards says it is important to distinguish what we mean when we say public and private.
“To say that something is a public record just means that it is a record held by the government. It is probably better to refer to them as government records. Because some public records can be public and some and some public records can be private,” Richards said.
One example of a public government record that is private because it is not available to citizens at large is the conceal carry permit holders in the state of Missouri. The Missouri Revised Statute states ‘Information regarding any holder of a concealed carry endorsement is a closed record.’ And ‘Any person who violates the provisions of this subsection by disclosing protected information shall be guilty of a class A misdemeanor.’ Executive Director at the National Freedom of Information Coalition Kenneth Bunting says the federal government is able to override a state law keeping a record private.
“The federal government from time to time particularly with regard to homeland security matters have wanted to make sure there is not a state law more liberal with regard to disclosure then they would be with regard to disclosure,” Bunting said.
Government records that are not normally available to the public or other government agencies can be during an investigation. Bunting says the problem then becomes what constitutes is a legitimate need by an investigator.
“Privacy legitimate concern in this era where swipe of card can ruin your life. But at the same time it should not be an excuse for making the government less efficient or making it less transparent,” Bunting said.
Richards recognizes privacy needs are legitimate but he says there needs to be a justified reason to make government records closed to the public. The Freedom of Information Act also known as FOIA is the law that allows citizens the right to access information from the federal government. The states version of FOIA is called the Sunshine Law.
“There are also very limited constitutional protection against the disclosure of information held by the government the so called right of constitutional privacy it’s very narrow its very small most constitutional lawyers don’t even know it exists. But in a few cases have said that it exists to stop the government from disclosing particularly harmful or embarrassing facts about its citizens,” Richards said.
In Missouri non personal information about driver’s records is available to the public but personal information on the license is closed to the public for safety reasons. Similarly personal information on hunting licenses are closed to the public but are available to law enforcement, courts, federal and state departments. Bunting says the controversy over the list of released concealed carry permit holders is not about public records as much as it is about gun rights.
“Controversy over social security had a legitimate need for it or is it that we are in a bigger controversy over guns and suddenly everything gets over wrought,” Bunting said.
As a result of this controversy Governor Jay Nixon announced the government will no longer scan or hold electronic copies of conceal carry permits because he said it is not essential to the integrity of the license process.