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Three cheers for keeping the FOID list private

I bet you thought that a guy with a government blog called “Opening Doors” would be in favor of making the list of people with Illinois Firearm Owner Identification Cards public. Think again.

My biases in favor of government openness and against government secrecy are no secret to anyone who knows me, or regularly reads my articles or my blog. But I applaud the efforts by the General Assembly, and now an Illinois circuit court, to keep the list of FOID card holders private.

(I'll lay another bias out in the name of full disclosure: I have a FOID card and I own firearms. As a former Army infantryman who has fired just about everything imaginable, I feel naked without having them around.)

A Peoria judge ruled that the list of the state’s 1.3 million cardholders must remain private. The mess started when the Associated Press tried to get the list under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. The Illinois State Police refused, but Attorney General Lisa Madigan ruled that nothing in the law made the list exempt.The ruling reinforces the General Assembly’s decision earlier this year to exempt the list.

The question that has to be asked is, why does the AP want the FOID list? The only sensible thing that readily pops to mind – to see if felons or other disqualified people have FOID cards – makes absolutely no sense. A criminal who wants a gun is just going to get one, not risk detection by getting registered.

My guess is that the AP wants to follow in the footsteps of other news agencies who have merely printed such lists wholesale because they can.

The Northwest Herald, like many newspapers, celebrates Sunshine Week every March to stress the importance of freedom of information. And in recent years, some newspapers have made the irresponsible decision to publish the names and locations of people in their coverage areas who have permits to carry concealed weapons (which of course, Illinois does not allow).

Newspapers in Sandusky, Ohio, Roanoke, Va., and elsewhere have celebrated “Sunshine Week” by making concealed carry lists public. And instead of showing the need for freedom of information, these newspapers succeeded only in making the public scared silly of it.

There are a lot of people who have good reason to carry concealed weapons and keep their locations secret. The retired police officer and the prosecutor who have spent their careers putting bad guys in jail come to mind. Maybe the battered spouse on the run from an abusive, stalking ex-husband wouldn’t appreciate having her home address and possession of firearms made public.

Sorry, but my suspicion, backed by evidence, is that the AP’s logic is this: Guns are bad and scary. People who own them must therefore be bad and scary. We need to let people know if they have bad, scary gun owners in their neighborhood.

In almost every case I listed above, the respective state governments stepped in and tightened their public records laws to exempt the list, so the newspapers wanting to promote openness ended up, if you'll pardon the pun, shooting themselves in the foot. Here in Illinois, where our state lawmakers (including two of our local ones) are filing bill after bill to gut our new Freedom of Information Act, and our local governments like the McHenry County Board are spending our tax dollars to help them, do we really need to give them more excuses?

When I file a Freedom of Information Act request, I have a good reason. I seek information that will legitimately inform the public and serve the public trust. I don’t want or need access to a list of law-abiding citizens exercising their Second Amendment right to bear arms. Once they decide to break the law, it becomes my business. Until then, it’s none of my business.

I’m sure this post will irk those journalists who believe we have to have absolute access to absolutely everything, lest democracy die. But this journalist is happy with having access to just about everything.

Senior Writer Kevin Craver can be reached at kcraver@shawmedia.com.

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