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Public records, gun rights at issue

The First and Second Amendments to the U.S. Constitution seldom are as juxtaposed as they were today before the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.

The debate was over Senate Bill 529, carried for the Freedom of Information Advisory Council by Sen. R. Edward Houck, D-Spotsylvania. The bill was largely a response to the posting last year by The Roanoke Times of the Virginia State Police database of holders of concealed weapon permits on its Web site.

The resulting furor was such that The Times quickly removed it. Houck’s bill generally prohibits public disclosure of the database but still allows anyone to go a circuit court clerk’s office and check to see whether anyone has a concealed weapon permit.

Gun rights advocates pressed to have even those records kept secret, or, at the very least, to allow permits issued at the request of crime victims or those with a law enforcement connection to be private.

Craig Merritt, representing the Virginia Press Association, said the group supported the legislation. He noted that judges can seal such records now if an applicant can show a compelling interest for doing so. Routine sealing of individual public records at a courthouse is inconsistent with the First Amendment, he said.

“I would urge you to be very careful about shrouding this process in secrecy,” said Sen. William Roscoe Reynolds, D-Martinsville, told his colleagues, noting that part of the tradeoff for the state’s relatively liberal concealed-weapon policy is a public record of who has such a permit.

The committee reported Houck’s bill to the full Senate on a 13-2 vote, with senators Ken T. Cuccinelli II, R-Fairfax, and Robert Hurt, R-Chatham, voting no.

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