By Joseph Spector, Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY,NY -- After the maelstrom created by the publication of an online database of gun owners in Westchester and Rockland counties, the state Legislature will now allow gun owners to keep their information private.
The bill, approved Tuesday, permits gun licensees to opt out of having their personal information available to the public under the state's Freedom of Information law. There are a number of criteria to opt out of the disclosure, including fear of harassment if the information is released.
Bob Freeman, executive director of the state's Committee on Open Government, said he supports the gun-control bill's provision to limit public access. "If the legislation adds to people's safety -- particularly the safety of our children -- I think it is more than worthwhile," Freeman told Gannett's Albany Bureau. "The legislation gives licensees an option to permit the disclosure of their names and addresses or to protect themselves if they feel that is warranted."
The Journal News, a Gannett Co. Inc. publication, last month published an interactive map of handgun licenses in Westchester and Rockland counties that drew national criticism. Putnam County has refused the paper's FOIL request for the information, citing citizens' safety. Some good-governments groups supported the newspaper's efforts.
The gun-control package includes a provision to keep private a statewide database on gun owners and ammunition sales that would be used by law enforcement and mental health professional to enforce the state's new laws.
On the county level, clerks will oversee the opt-out option on license applications -- which includes options for law enforcement officials, victims of domestic violence, people who had served on a grand jury and those who fear for their safety or are concerned about harassment. For the first 120 days of the new law, no information on gun licenses would be available; then the opt-out provision would take effect. People who already have licenses would be allowed to go back to the county clerks and fill out a form to opt out.
All gun licenses have to be re-certified every five years, and local officials can choose not to grant the privacy of an applicant if there is inaccurate information on the form. Freeman said he expected most gun owners would opt out of the disclosure. He said the new legislation is consistent with laws on other sensitive personal information. Health-care documents and school records of children often have an opt-out policy, he said. "As privacy laws are generally presented, not only in this country, but around the world, often the subject of the record is given a degree of control over disclosure and certainly this new provision is consistent with that general notion," Freeman said.
Jackie Hilly, head of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, said last week that she wouldn't object to having the information private. "I think it's important for the police to have that information," she said.
Sen. Greg Ball, R-Patterson, Putnam County, opposed the gun-control bill, but was pleased the privacy measures were included. "As a community we stood firm on principle and fought for commonsense against the idiocy of the Journal News," Ball said in a statement last night. "Tonight we have won a big battle against their unwarranted invasion."
Sen. David Carlucci, D-Clarkstown, Rockland County, said he also supported the privacy measures. "Of great importance to all New York gun owners, this bill ensures better privacy standards here in New York by establishing a state database of pistol permits that is not subject to FOIL," he said in a statement.
There are a number of reasons why someone can try to claim a privacy exemption under the new gun-control bill. They include:
-- the applicant's life or safety may be endangered by disclosure -- the applicant is an active or retired police officer, peace officer, probation officer, parole officer, or corrections officer
-- the applicant is a protected person under a currently valid order of protection
-- the applicant is or was a witness in a criminal proceeding involving a criminal charge
-- the applicant is participating or previously participated as a juror in a criminal proceeding, or is or was a member of a grand jury;
-- the applicant is a spouse, domestic partner or household member in a domestic-violence dispute
-- the applicant has reason to believe his or her life or safety may be endangered by disclosure
-- the applicant has reason to believe he or she may be subject to unwarranted harassment upon disclosure of such information.
Joe Spector/Gannett Albany Bureau