March 1, 2013 10:27:39 AM
JACKSON -- The Mississippi House on Thursday sent the governor a bill to block public access to information about state-issued permits for people to carry concealed weapons.
The move comes even as the Department of Public Safety has delayed responding to Freedom of Information requests for the records.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant is expected to sign House Bill 485, which is supported by the National Rifle Association. It has been backed by lawmakers upset that a newspaper in New York published the names and addresses of people who have concealed weapons permits. Supporters say allowing open records violates gun owners' privacy.
"As a matter of public safety, Gov. Bryant is opposed to releasing personal information on law-abiding gun owners," spokesman Mick Bullock said. "Other sensitive information like medical records, driver's licenses, tax documents and personnel files is not splashed on some website or made the subject of a front-page news story."
Sen. Will Longwitz, R-Madison, said 31 other states have sealed their permit records from public inspection. He and the House sponsor, Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon, said they drafted bills after talks with constituents who believe it's no one else's business if they carry concealed guns.
Under current law, information about a concealed weapons permit becomes public record 45 days after the permit is issued or the application is denied.
Discussion in a Wednesday Senate Judiciary A Committee meeting indicated DPS has ignored the seven-day legal deadline to respond to pending requests for the list under state law, inviting a lawsuit.
"It's way past that," DPS deputy administrator Ken Magee told the committee. "I think they have tried to put it off as much as they can, putting DPS in an awkward position."
Magee described approving the bill as a "pressing issue. " Senate Judiciary A Committee Chairman Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, told committee members that enacting a law could help block the requests.
"There's not any kind of timeframe that can't be slowed down through court process," Hopson said.
Sen. Kelvin Butler, D-McComb, objected to the move in committee.
"You know, if we're going to rush it through so we don't have to deal with the request, that's illegal," Butler said.
A reporter for Tupelo's Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal has requested the records, as has James Hendrix, who runs the Jackson Jambalaya blog. Neither had yet received the records by Thursday. The Department of Public Safety, in a Feb. 7 letter to Hendrix, denied the request, citing individual privacy rights, "Second Amendment freedoms associated with firearms possession" and "pending changes" to the state's public records law.
Hendrix, who blogs under the name Kingfish, said the denial is illegal.
"The department insulted the taxpayers of Mississippi by claiming it can deny records based on what it thinks the law will be instead of what it currently is," he said. "The law means nothing if a government agency can use such dishonest excuses to avoid complying with the law."
Lloyd Gray, executive editor of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, said the reporter who initially filed the request cited the federal Freedom of Information Act instead of state public records law. He said the newspaper was directed to refile its request with a different person and did so, citing the state law, earlier this week.
Gray said the newspaper has not received any formal response and said he assumed the state would still give the Journal the records. Gray said the state granted the newspaper's similar request in 2006.
Both Gray and Hendrix said they don't intend to publish the records.
Department of Public Safety spokesman Warren Strain wrote in an email Thursday that "lawyers are contemplating which parts of the request may be fulfilled." Leonard Van Slyke, a lawyer for the Mississippi Press Association, said there's no precedent for what happens to records requests pending when state law changes.
Strain has not responded to multiple Associated Press requests to elaborate on the denial of Hendrix's request, which he signed. In a Feb. 8 email to Strain, AP requested a copy of any 2013 correspondence between DPS and Bryant's office concerning public records requests for the permits. On Thursday, after not responding to AP phone calls and emails, Strain told the AP that the email didn't meet the department's public record request policy and said to file a new one.
It's unclear whether Bryant has instructed DPS to deny the requests. Bullock said Bryant supports the denials.
"The governor believes the release of this information would be a violation of the privacy and Second Amendment rights of these individuals and a threat to their safety," Bullock said.