Illinois Officials Spar Over Order to Make List of Gun Owners Public

In a showdown over the privacy rights of gun owners, the Illinois State Police are refusing to release a list identifying all firearm permit holders in the state after Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan determined that the information "must" be made public.

The dispute, which soon could come before a judge, has been building since last fall when a reporter for The Associated Press made a Freedom of Information Act request to the police for the names of cardholders as well as information about the weapons each permit holder is authorized to carry.

But the state police, who safeguard that information, resisted as lawmakers and others raised privacy concerns. Critics questioned what public interest it would serve to let neighbors look up each other's potential weapons cache -- further, they warned that publicizing the information could put both gun owners and those who don't own guns at risk.

If the state publishes a list of gun owners, Republican Rep. Ron Stephens said, "You are by design also publishing a list of everyone who doesn't" carry a firearm.

That could be comparable to publishing a list of everyone who has, or doesn't have, a car alarm or home-security system, at least in the eyes of those who want to keep the records private.

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"My gun ownership is none of your business," Stephens, who is pushing a bill in the General Assembly to lock down that list, told "I don't know what Lisa Madigan doesn't understand about that, but obviously she's confused."

Madigan's office, though, issued a detailed legal opinion Tuesday explaining why the state police should release the registry to The Associated Press.

Assistant Public Access Counselor Matthew Rogina, citing federal court decisions as well as Illinois law, wrote in a letter to the state police attorney that disclosing the names "cannot be characterized as highly personal or objectionable." He wrote that there is a "public interest" in releasing the information, citing the example of an individual who may have become ineligible to carry.

"Therefore, even if disclosure of the names and expiration of the (Firearm Owner's Identification Card) card owners did constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, this fact is outweighed by the public interest that exists in ensuring the integrity of the (police) database," he wrote.

The police had argued that they should not have to release the records because of an exemption for "information that would endanger the life or physical safety of law enforcement personnel or any other person."

Madigan's office disagreed. It was the second time the office had rejected law enforcement's rationale for withholding the records.

In response, the police issued a brief statement saying the force "respectfully disagrees" with the opinion. It urged the public access counselor to issue a "binding opinion so that the issue may be resolved through the judicial process."

A spokeswoman in Madigan's office said the ball is still in the court of the state police, describing Rogina's opinion as a "detailed legal analysis" of the dispute.

But while the state police weigh their options, Stephens is trying to short-circuit the disagreement with legislation. Though he claims Illinois law already bars the police from making the gun permit registry public, he's pushing a bill that would clearly prohibit that information from being released except in connection with a criminal investigation.

Stephens' bill narrowly failed in committee on a 5-5 vote Wednesday, but under state law, the committee can reconsider it. Stephens said he'll bring it back for a do-over in the next couple weeks.

"This is an important issue about freedom. ... We will persist," Stephens said.

National Rifle Association spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said his group would do "whatever we can" to stop the attorney general decision from being enforced.

"There's no reason for the names of law-abiding gun owners to be released to the general public," Arulanandam said.