License to evade

An April court ruling in Jackson County that the names of concealed handgun license holders are public record has prompted county sheriffs to begin asking license holders and applicants if they want their names to be kept confidential for security reasons. There may well be justification in some cases to withhold a license holder's name, but it is not the job of county sheriffs to make that determination or to rewrite state law.

The dispute over handgun license information began when a Medford teacher with a concealed handgun license sought permission to carry a concealed handgun on the job at South Medford High School. Curious about how many public school teachers might have handgun licenses, the Mail Tribune requested a list of license holders from the Jackson County Sheriff's Office. Sheriff Mike Winters refused the request on the grounds that the licenses were issued for security reasons.

In April, Jackson County Circuit Judge Phil Arnold ruled that the "security measures" exemption in Oregon public records law did not apply to the names of concealed handgun license holders. Winters has appealed the ruling.

Now, Washington County Sheriff Rob Gordon has begun contacting all 10,000 license holders in that county to ask if their license was obtained as a security measure. Winters has added a confidentiality request to Jackson County's license application form.

Public records laws were enacted not for the benefit of newspapers, but to protect the public interest in knowing how its government operates.

Oregon's laws presume that records are public unless there is a compelling reason to keep them secret. In the case of concealed handgun licenses, there is a clear public interest in keeping the names of license holders public as a general rule.

The case of the Medford teacher is one example. Do parents have a legitimate interest in knowing that their children's teacher is licensed to carry a concealed weapon?

We submit they do.

Applicants for concealed hangun licenses must meet several criteria, including a clean criminal record, no history of illegal drug use or mental illness, and no involvement in domestic violence or threats of violence. The public official charged with making sure all these criteria are met is the county sheriff.

The public has a clear interest in knowing that the sheriff is diligently enforcing these rules. If a sheriff were handing out licenses to people who shouldn't have them, and all licensees' names were kept secret, the public would have no way to know that the sheriff wasn't doing his job.

Sheriff Gordon and Sheriff Winters are undoubtedly doing what they think is best. The problem is, it's not their place to do it.

Judge Arnold's ruling noted that the state law governing handgun licenses makes no mention of security measures, and he concluded that a separate statute exempting information about "security measures" from public disclosure is not applicable to the names of handgun licensees.

If there is a compelling reason to withhold the names of some licensees in some circumstances, then the way to accomplish that is to change state law. That is the job of the Legislature, not county sheriffs.

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