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When it Comes to Disclosure, New NY Gun Control Law is Shooting a Blank

BY Sam Roudman | Wednesday, January 16 2013

Last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo laid out an ambitious open government agenda in his state of the state address, declaring his commitment to provide "easy, single-stop access to statewide and agency-level data, reports, statistics, compilations and information." This week he carved out his first exemption: gun owners.

Responding to the Newtown massacre last month, New York passed one of the most stringent and wide reaching gun control laws in the country this week. While the NY SAFE Act of 2013 gives gun control advocates and opponents much to celebrate and sulk over respectively, it also serves a bitter pill to supporters of open government, providing registered gun owners with a mechanism to remain anonymous in the face of freedom of information requests.

"It's a clear step backwards on freedom of information law and public transparency," says John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, and Co-Chair of the New York City Transparency Working Group.

The anonymity exemption, which requires gun owners to provide a reason they wish to remain out of the public record, is a response to the controversy that followed the Journal News' publication last month of the names and addresses of over 33 thousand hand gun permit holders in Rockland and Westchester counties, north of New York City.

Republican State Senate leader Dean Skelos told Bloomberg that the confidentiality protection helped wrangle Republicans to vote for the measure.

"This is part of the political sausage making process," says Kaehny.

According to him and other open government advocates, there are reasons to believe this sausage's recipe could use some fine-tuning.

"It sets a dangerous precedent," says Noel Hidalgo, Code for America's New York Program Manager, "where special interest groups can exempt their communities." If firearm owners can create an exemption from public disclosure, than why couldn't licensed livery car drivers, healthcare workers, sellers of pesticide or lawyers?

The problem section of the law seeks to address could also be handled more delicately.

"Some of the concern with the Journal News dataset is the fact that they put an individual's name and address with a gun," says Hidalgo. According to him, listing gun permit holders by name and zip code or census tract could better satisfy the competing demands the personal privacy and public disclosure, than simply exempting data from public record.

There are also problems with the reasons gun holders can give to qualify for the exemption.

"We don't know who will evaluate the reason," says Bob Freeman, Executive Director of New York State's Committee on Open Government, which according to its website, advises the public on "Freedom of Information, Open Meetings, and Personal Privacy Protection Laws."

The law provides two main reasons a gun owner can appeal to exempt themselves from public disclosure. The first is that they believe their life would be at risk if the information were disclosed. Reason one applies directly to police officers, former witnesses or jurors in criminal cases, their spouses and family, and also to those who fill in the blank with a separate reason.

The second rationale gun owners can appeal to in going off the public disclosure grid is that publication of their identifying information could make them subject to "unwarranted harassment."

"I just think it is exceedingly vague," says Freeman. "We're all involved in 'unwarranted harassment' every day of our lives," he continues, referring to his full e-mail box in the morning, and unsolicited calls from journalists as potential examples.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's office, which is in charge of "NYOpengovernment.com", had no comment.

Could this piece of the law scuttle Cuomo's open government agenda? Probably not.

"New York is so far forwards with regards to open data," says Hidalgo, and the piece of the law that allows gun owners to remain anonymous "is something that came out in the dark of the night."

Kaehny seconds him.

"Is this a step backward? Yes," says Kaehny. "Is this a profound step? No."

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