By Joseph Spector
Gannett Albany Bureau
ALBANY, N.Y. - After the maelstrom created by the publication of an online database of gun owners in two New York counties, the state Legislature is set to allow gun owners to keep their information private.
The bill, which was signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on 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.
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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 said. "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 (Westchester, N.Y.) 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 because they said Putnam was violating state law.
Russ Haven, counsel to the New York Public Interest Group, said Tuesday that the group supported the Journal News' effort to get the Putnam data because it was at the time public. He said he would not weigh in on whether it should have remained public.
"There are reasonable positions on both sides," he said.
Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti, a Democrat from Westchester County, expressed concern that the bill infringes not on the Second Amendment, as critics have suggested, but the First Amendment, which guarantees free speech.
Abinanti still voted for the legislation, which he characterized as a good first step.
"I believe freedom of the press and freedom of speech is the true champion and true protector of democracy," Abinanti said on the Assembly floor. "And to say to the newspapers that they can't publish information that the public wants to know, I think is the true violation of our Constitution."
Republican Sen. Greg Ball, R-Patterson, of Putnam County, opposed the gun-control bill, but was pleased that the privacy measures were included.
"As a community we stood firm on principle and fought for common sense against the idiocy of the Journal News," Ball said in a statement. "Tonight we have won a big battle against their unwarranted invasion."
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 would 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 would have to be re-certified every five years, and local officials could 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. David Carlucci, a Democrat from 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.
Contributing: Jon Campbell, Gannett Albany Bureau
Gannett Albany Bureau