The names and addresses of about 170,000 handgun permit holders in Connecticut, now kept confidential by law, could be made public under a proposed bill that pits gun owners against would-be reformers in the aftermath of the Dec. 14 Newtown school massacre.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Stephen D. Dargan, D-West Haven, co-chairman of the legislature's public safety committee, would make public the names and addresses of permit holders under Connecticut's Freedom of Information Act — and would reverse lawmakers' decision to protect that personal information from disclosure nearly two decades ago.
Dargan's bill already has stirred debate, well before next Wednesday's opening of a five-month General Assembly session that is expected to be dominated by gun-control issues after 20 first-graders and six adult staff members were killed Dec. 14 by gunman Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Lanza, 20, shot himself as police arrived; he had killed his mother at their Newtown home earlier.
Dargan's bill also could draw Connecticut into a controversy now raging to the west in New York — where a local newspaper recently used New York's freedom of information law to publish a "gun map" showing the names and home locations of gun owners in some parts of New York.
In both states, the central question is whether the public interest in knowing how many guns are spread through communities is outweighed by the privacy rights of people exercising their constitutional right to own guns.
"Most things are FOI-able now," Dargan said in an interview Thursday. "Go to the local city clerk's office and you can find out where Steve Dargan owns property," as well as what cars a person owns and perhaps some of his debts. "I don't know why a responsible gun owner is worried about whether a permit for a revolver is FOI-able or not."
Dargan said that in the "computer age," and in an open society, it is reasonable for people to want access to gun ownership information. "Maybe their kids are going over to Johnny Smith's, and maybe they want to see whether they have guns in the house."
But gun owners and their advocates see it differently, saying that criminals would prosper by knowing which homes they could burglarize to steal firearms and which homes might not be defended by gun owners.
"It's a tool for criminals," said Robert Crook, executive director and lobbyist for the 35,000-member Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen. "You don't see the pistol permit holders in the newspapers. They just don't break the law, normally." He said Lanza broke many laws leading up to the murders, starting with stealing the guns he used in the shootings. The guns had belonged to his mother, with whom he lived.
Crook added: "I don't have a solution" for criminal behavior, he said, "but I don't think releasing the names of handgun owners will have an effect … except to give some people, and I mean criminals, an option."
The proposal also was criticized by Richard Burgess, an electrical engineer from North Branford who heads Connecticut Carry, a small nonprofit group he started a year ago to advocate for citizens' right to bear arms under the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
"It's crazy for someone to think this is a good idea. I can only see harm that could come from it. Do we want to give criminals access to a database that tells you where every handgun in Connecticut is?" Burgess asked.
Also, disclosing handgun permit holders' identities still would not tell the public the location of the many thousands of additional homes in which rifles are kept, Burgess said, because the state does not require permits to own rifles. "So, really, you're not getting a benefit out of it, and you're only putting the gun owner in danger," he said.
The state only requires a permit to own a pistol, and you have to be 21 to obtain one after undergoing a federal and state criminal background check that also incorporates findings of mental defects.
To buy a rifle, you need to be 18 and undergo a background check, but no permit is required.
The military-style, semi-automatic Bushmaster rifle that Lanza used at the school does not fall under the state's assault weapons ban. Neither did the 30-round magazines that he used. Other state lawmakers are proposing tightening the assault-weapons law, and banning high-capacity magazines containing more than 10 bullets, among a variety of other gun-control reforms.
On Dec. 22, eight days after the Newtown massacre, the Journal News published its "gun map," drawing protests from at least one gun association and Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who said the newspaper "did all the work for criminals" who would be deciding "which house they're going to hit."
In Connecticut, Dargan said he introduced the bill because "people want to have a discussion" about guns after perhaps "the worst school tragedy in history, with kids who are just learning how to tie their shoes gunned down by a madman."
"We should have that discussion," he said. Dargan said he respects gun ownership rights and "I've always been in the middle of the road. I haven't been crazy either way in the years that I've been here. I've always tried to do something that makes sense. I'm going to reach out to people on both sides" for a public hearing on the proposal.
Crook said that thousands of opponents might turn out for such a hearing.
An authority on constitutional law, Gary L. Rose, chairman of the Department of Government and Politics at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, said in a Thursday interview that opponents of the disclosure bill might have the upper hand.
Rose disagreed with Dargan's reasoning that disclosing handgun permit holders' information is like releasing public records related to home ownership and motor vehicles. Gun ownership is different; it is a right protected by the Second Amendment — and thus, he said, is more in the category of other guarantees in the Bill of Rights such as freedom of religion and association.
The right to practice one's religion freely and with privacy is guaranteed, and such a Constitutional privacy guarantee should extend to the right to bear arms, Rose said.
"I think that what the lawmaker is attempting to do here can be viewed as an assault on the right to privacy," Rose said. "If we can start publicizing who owns guns, then what's next — lists of who practices certain religious freedoms and what organizations they belong to?"