By Lloyd Gray
When is the law the law? And does a state law enforcement agency – not to mention the governor – have the authority to deliberately ignore the law because they don’t like it?
Those are the essential questions raised by a recent Daily Journal public records request. According to The Associated Press, representatives of the Mississippi Department of Public Safety have acknowledged to legislators that the agency stalled on complying with requests from a Daily Journal reporter and a Jackson blogger for lists of concealed-carry gun permit holders. The Journal’s request was for Lee County only.
That request was not unprecedented. In 2006 we asked for and received, without delay, a list of all concealed-carry permit holders in the state. Then as now, we asked for the information to assist in covering gun buying and carrying trends and had no intention of publishing anyone’s name or address.
It didn’t seem to be a big deal back then, but the gun issue wasn’t as much on people’s minds as it is today and, yes, no newspaper had published the names of permit holders, as a New York paper did in December.
I understand the rationale against these records being public, and certainly against publishing the names. My purpose here is not to argue that point.
But as I explained in a Feb. 3 column on this subject, reporters routinely ask for public records of all sorts. They use them in a variety of ways, but the bottom line is that the law requires them to be available for public inspection. Mississippi law had not, until last week, made an exception for concealed-carry permits.
The law also lays out required procedures for dealing with public records requests. An agency must produce the records within seven days or respond in writing with the reasons it won’t. Our reporter filed his initial records request in January. He refiled it with a letter mailed last Tuesday. As of Friday, we had received no records and no formal response.
According to the AP, Department of Public Safety deputy administrator Ken Magee on Wednesday told the Senate Judiciary A Committee, when asked about the records requests, that DPS officials “have tried to put it off as much as they can, putting DPS in an awkward position.”
So the Department of Public Safety, by its own admission, avoided abiding by the law, hoping to stall long enough for the Legislature to pass a bill closing the records, which it did.
DPS did send a formal response to the Jackson blogger, denying his request, citing individual privacy rights, “Second Amendment freedoms associated with firearms possession” and “pending changes” to the state’s public records law.
That last one should raise some eyebrows. Since when is an agency – a law enforcement agency, to boot – not obliged to abide by the law because the law might change?
Gov. Phil Bryant, according to the AP, agreed with the records denials and announced his intention to quickly sign into law the bill closing the records.
I’m fully aware that most readers probably agree that these records should be closed. I respect and understand that position. I’m also appreciative that Gov. Bryant has been a solid advocate of open government for a long time.
But for state officials to deny access to a record that is clearly public under the law for enough time for the law to be changed is a startling precedent. What other kinds of public records might also fall under a politically popular but not legal exclusion and prompt public officials to deliberately ignore the law?
I don’t know the answer, but I do find the question troubling.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.