On Wednesday morning, a bill passed through the Michigan Senate Judiciary Committee that would make certain guns manufactured in the state exempt from existing federal firearms regulations. In addition to eliminating some licensing requirements for federal firearms dealers, the package would prevent handgun registration records from being publicly available under the Freedom of Information Act. This measure to limit public records is considered a response to a map published in New York newspaper The Journal News, which listed information about registered gun owners in their area. Despite controversy surrounding the paper’s decision to publish the map, the Michigan bill shouldn’t move forward with this legislation. Michigan residents deserve to have access to these public records.
Proponents of such legislation argue that it prevents gun owners from being unfairly targeted by malicious or defamatory use of this information. Although inflammatory and controversial in light of increasing national debate over gun laws, publishing publicly available information about the holders of firearms permits was within the purview of the journalists. In an era of increasing accessibility to personal information, a perceived breach of privacy rights isn’t addressed most efficiently by reacting to this particular map. If the journalists’ actions are to be challenged in light of this specific incident, it should be part of a wider conversation about access to personal information, not as justification to promote the special interests of some.
Michigan’s current laws regulating the privacy of gun ownership information aren’t uniformly and comprehensively defined. Although Michigan law already exempts holders of concealed pistol permits from being disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act, records of purchase permits provided by local law enforcement are still available to the public. In lieu of a thorough legislative process, the proposed bills are strictly reactionary and fail to examine the structure and motivations for gun control laws in the state.
Firearm permits are issued to vet potential gun owners, introducing a measure of accountability to the use of guns. Statistics from the FBI show that nearly 67 percent of homicides in the United States are committed with firearms. As with other products that may pose a threat to public safety, guns are federally and state-regulated devices. FOIA was created to provide accountability and transparency of legally regulated activities and to ensure that the safety, security and rights of the public aren’t outweighed by the interests of policymakers or special interest groups.
Michigan should uphold the example set by federal legislation and promote public and government accountability. The bill being considered by the state legislature is a reactionary response to an isolated incident and doesn’t address the issue at the heart of the gun control debate. If a conversation about gun rights occurs at the legislative level, the state government needs to set a precedent that makes accountability a priority and the disclosure of gun ownership part of the rule, not the exception.