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Gun Permits Are (Not So) Public Information

May 9, 2010

By Jay Scarborough
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Several members of the Virginia General Assembly this year pushed for a state law to prohibit the public from finding out whether someone has a concealed weapons permit.

The proposed legislation failed; the permits theoretically remain open. But the reality is that it is difficult and frustrating for journalists or members of the public to view these records. If you’re trying to look up whether a specific person – a threatening neighbor, an abusive ex-spouse or a high-level public official – has a license to carry, all I can tell you is: Good luck.

That was my experience when I went to Richmond’s John Marshall Courts Building to see which local legislators and other politicians have concealed weapons permits. (There is no statewide database for the public to access. You must go to each city or county to look up the permits issued by the Circuit Court in that jurisdiction. That alone is a daunting task: Virginia has 134 cities and counties.)

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I anticipated a level of bureaucratic hassle as I walked up the long brick staircase leading to the entrance of courts building. I passed through a metal detector and was frisked by two sheriff’s deputies for weapons or other forbidden objects such as cameras or voice recording equipment.

I explained that I wanted to look up concealed weapons permits. I was pointed in the direction of the office that I needed to visit.

As I entered the office, I was greeted by a maze of desks. I assumed that the one directly in front of the entrance was the reception area, and I politely asked if this was where could get information about weapons permits.

A friendly court employee told me that I was indeed in the right place and then asked if I needed an application for a permit.

After a moment of mild confusion, I made it clear that I was not trying to apply for a permit but to view the records of individuals who were granted permits by Richmond Circuit Court. The employee then told me that I would need to speak to someone else and pointed toward another desk across the bustling room.

I was asked to have a seat in a cramped cubicle where I believed I would be told how to view the permit records by a similarly friendly court employee. On the contrary, I was immediately grilled with a series of questions: Why do you want to see the information? Who are you? I answered that second question by giving my name – only to be asked again: Who are you?

My frustration began to rise. After all, state law is clear: Concealed weapons permits are public information; they are in no way confidential.

I reached the breaking point when I was told that there were no records available in this office. In a slight lapse in professionalism, I said something to the effect that “I know the records are here, and I am not leaving until I see them.”

The employee was obviously annoyed by my persistence and told me to wait as another employee, or perhaps the supervisor, was consulted.

I sat for what seemed like half an hour. I began to expect deputies to charge into the room and start questioning my motives for coming into the courts building. Instead, the same employee who minutes before had attempted to turn me away reappeared, apologized for the wait and showed me to a computer where I would be able to view the records I came to see.

The computer station appeared to be someone’s work space: It was covered in official-looking documents and had its own phone and printer. The employee demonstrated how I could search the courts database for concealed weapons records and then walked away, leaving me alone.

Beyond the clutter of the workstation, I faced a staggering multitude of distractions as I attempted my research. People were shuffling around the office constantly, bumping into the chair I was sitting in every few minutes. Phones rang constantly, including the one at the desk I was seated at. Every five minutes or so, an employee would ask me if I was almost through with the computer because someone else wanted to use it.

Needless to say, the environment was not particularly conducive to research. But I found the information I was looking for. At least, I found out how to find it – and how massive a task I was undertaking.

Initially, my goal was to search the database for local and state government officials who possessed concealed weapons permits. It might be instructive, and a public service, to report who had permits and who did not – and to show how they voted on gun-rights issues.

I expected an interface like Lexis-Nexis, Google or other courts-document databases: I thought I could type in a name, and the system would show me whether the court had issued a concealed weapons permit to someone with that name.

No dice.

To my dismay, the records were not searchable by name.

What the database contained were images of orders by Circuit Court judges listing each individual who was granted a permit in each month of each year.

So I could see, for example, the names of the Richmond residents who had been granted concealed weapons permits in, say, February. Then I could go back a month and view the names for January. Rinse and repeat for December and each preceding month.

Concealed weapons permits in Virginia are valid for five years. So to find a particular person’s name, you’d have to go through every month of every year for a five-year period, name by name.

After 20 minutes or so of squinting at the computer screen, I realized that it would take far more than a day to go through all of the Circuit Court orders for concealed weapons permits since January 2005.

So after my ordeal, I ended up walking away without the information I had intended to collect. But I learned a more important lesson: I left the courthouse with a much greater understanding of the hurdles journalists and other citizens face in viewing ostensibly public records.

For that, I am grateful. But I’m also slightly jaded toward the institutions that are supposed to be working for the citizens whose taxes fund them.


More: Should Concealed Gun Permits Be Public?

How To Apply For a Concealed Weapons Permit