March 14, 2013 9:53:22 AM
JACKSON -- Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant's staff suggested that the Department of Public Safety should delay fulfilling requests for gun permit records until a law could be enacted to shield them from public scrutiny, emails obtained by The Associated Press show.
The emails, obtained under a public records request, show Bryant staff counsel Jack Wilson on Jan. 26 wrote that the permits "are subject to the public records act" after they were requested by the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal newspaper of Tupelo. But he and other Bryant staffers suggested DPS should delay its response as long as possible, then deny the request as violating gun owners' Second Amendment rights.
The department denied the request by the newspaper and another by a Jackson blogger for a list of concealed weapons permit holders.
During a Feb. 27 Senate hearing, comments by Bryant staffers and lawmakers suggested that the supporters were trying rush a public records exemption into law to keep the records from getting out. The exemption was backed by the National Rifle Association and lawmakers upset that a newspaper in New York published the names and addresses of people there who have handgun permits. Bryant, a Republican, signed the new law March 4.
The Daily Journal originally filed under the federal Freedom of Information Act and then was directed to file under state open records law. The second filing was made Feb. 28. It was denied within hours of the law being signed.
"At the time the records were requested they were open and we feel the law should have been followed," Daily Journal Executive Editor Lloyd Gray said.
James Hendrix, who runs the Jackson Jambalaya blog, has previously said he believed the state violated the law when it denied his request Feb. 7, citing privacy rights., Second Amendment rights and the potential that the Legislature could change the law. Hendrix declined to comment Wednesday.
The governor's staff counsel had initially said in an email that the list was open to inspection.
"I don't believe there is any applicable statutory exemption," Wilson wrote Jan. 26. "In fact, the statute currently makes it clear that they are subject to the public records act." He went on in the same email to suggest denying the records on Second Amendment grounds, saying that could buy time for a bill to pass.
Wilson also voiced concern that the office of Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat, could end up representing the state if anyone sued DPS over the denials. Bryant policy advisor Camp Murphy replied that some DPS lawyers weren't under Hood's control and wondered if they could represent the department.
"The exchange indicates they knew what the statute said and chose to seek a way to delay or avoid compliance," Charlie Mitchell, a University of Mississippi journalism professor, wrote in a Wednesday email. Mitchell is the board president for the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information.
Mick Bullock, Bryant's spokesman, described Wilson's reasoning as a first reaction, and said the governor's office and DPS decided a denial was legal after further research. He said Wilson was out of the office and unavailable for an interview Wednesday. He said Chief Counsel Bobby Waites wasn't as familiar with the case and was too busy to talk.
Various emails included Wilson, Waites, Murphy, Deputy Chief of Staff Lucien Smith and Chief of Staff Kirk Sims, as well as DPS attorney Tim Smith and DPS employee Tim Watson. Twelve emails among the various parties between Jan. 25 and Feb. 7 were disclosed to the AP.
Bullock said agencies sometimes alert the governor's office about records requests. "It depends on the subject matter," he said Wednesday. He reiterated Bryant's earlier position that gun records were similar to other categories of records that should be private, such as medical information.
On Jan. 28, Wilson wrote that Murphy had told him the DPS has "always" refused requests for the gun permit list on Second Amendment grounds and no newspaper had ever challenged the decision. However, Gray has said the Journal received a list of permit holders in 2006.
Later on Jan. 28, Murphy asked DPS' Tim Smith to work with Wilson and Waites on drafting responses. On Feb. 7, Wilson asked Smith to share the response the department had drafted before sending it out.
"This was all about showing the public that Mississippi officials are firmly aligned against regulating the private ownership of firearms," Mitchell wrote. "The odd thing is that granting the government a stamp of 'official secrecy' in this context was to court the favor those who, in many other circumstances, insist government cannot be trusted."