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RICHMOND — What started out as an uncontroversial measure to protect people threatened with domestic violence has been rewritten by the General Assembly’s most gun-friendly committee to close off all public access to concealed-handgun permits.
If passed by the state legislature, it would be a sweeping change to the state’s decades-old system of regulating conceal ed weapons, a system whose records have always been public.
The maneuver blindsided gun-control and open-government advocates, who had not opposed Sen. Mark Obenshain’s bill (SB1335) in its original form.
The original measure would have allowed circuit court clerks to withhold information about a concealed-handgun permit issued to someone who is protected by a protective order. Such orders are generally issued in cases where a person is found to be at risk of domestic violence.
The bill was narrowly drawn, specifying that the information could only be withheld upon receipt of a written request from the protected person and a certified copy of the protective order.
The measure passed the Senate 39-1. Then it advanced to the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee, a well-known haven for pro-gun legislation.
On Feb. 7, a five-man subcommittee of that panel rewrote the bill to shut off public access to all concealed-handgun permits. The full committee approved the bill, 16-6, advancing it to the House of Delegates floor.
Andrew Goddard, a gun-control advocate whose son Colin was wounded in the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, protested the maneuver to no avail.
“This is not the same bill. This is an entirely different bill,” he told the committee. “I think it’s a very underhanded way of getting a bill passed.”
Del. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William County), the committee chairman, cut Goddard off at that point, admonishing him for attacking “the character of this committee.”
Lingamfelter defended the rewritten bill as a privacy protection measure. “From a privacy viewpoint, it’s a huge issue,” he said.
In the wake of the committee’s action, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, a freedom-of-information advocacy group, has launched a campaign to defeat the measure.
“If they close off access to all the permits, then the public has no way to monitor this area of government regulation,” said Megan Rhyne, the group’s executive director. “We don’t know if people who are getting permits should not be getting them.”
Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) called the House amendment to his bill “fantastic” and “one I wholeheartedly embrace.”
Asked if his bill was filed as a vehicle to broaden protections of concealed-weapon permit records in anticipation of a House alteration, Obenshain winked, then said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I certainly did nothing to discourage it,” he noted.
Obenshain said legislators first took an interest in the topic after the Roanoke Times in 2007, “ill-advisedly” in his view, published a list of Virginians licensed to carry concealed weapons.
Those concerns were renewed, he said, after a suburban New York newspaper in December 2012 posted an interactive map on its website displaying the names and addresses of people with handgun permits.
Obenshain said such public disclosures aren’t “in the interest of public safety.”
Concealed-handgun permits can be obtained through Virginia circuit courts or Virginia State Police.
State figures from mid-December indicate more than 297,600 Virginia residents had been issued permits by the courts and state police had issued 7,600 to out-of-state residents.
Obenshain said there is a “gaping hole” in state open-record law as it applies to concealed-handgun permit information held by the courts.
And he argued there are valid reasons for that information to be withheld from the public, such as shielding sensitive information about domestic violence victims who obtain weapon permits for personal protection.
“There are reasons why it’s none of anybody else’s business,” Obenshain said.
“This is a privacy issue, it’s not a gun issue.”