By Elisabeth Meinecke
The identities of legal gun owners in Illinois will remain protected for now, thanks to a court order preventing the state from releasing the information as part of a Freedom of Information Act request by an Associated Press reporter.
The list of owners and the expiration date of their Firearm Owner’s Identification (FOID) cards are considered public records since they are in the possession of the state police (a public agency), and thus fall under FOIA’s jurisdiction. This would make that information, accessible to the public upon request. However, FOIA contains an exception if the release of the information would cause severe physical risk.
As of Wednesday, GOP Rep. Aaron Schock had yet to hear from the person who initially ordered the release of the information, state Attorney General Lisa Madigan. Schock spearheaded a letter to Madigan last week signed by a 12-member bipartisan coalition of U.S. representatives from Illinois. The letter asked that she revoke her order to Illinois state police to release the gun owners’ identities after the police had initially denied the reporter’s request. As of yet, Schock’s office has received no response from the attorney general, although they confirmed any contact sent through snail mail could still be in transit.
Madigan’s office said they have reached out to people who have contacted their office on the matter, which they say is strictly one of what can be released under FOIA, not one of gun control.
The coalition of Illinois representatives sees it differently.
The letter to Madigan goes over some of the worst consequences of having the information of FOID cardholders made public: Criminals may choose to rob FOID homes to steal firearms that they can’t get legally, and it could encourage more people, in the interest of privacy, to forego the legal route of getting a FOID card “because they do not want to be on a criminals’ shopping list.” It also puts up as easy targets those homes without a firearm.
“This could be comparable to the State releasing a list of everyone who does not have an alarm system in their home,” the letter says, adding later, “Publically releasing the personal information of gun owners seems more like an intimidation tactic to discourage the lawful ownership of firearms than a way to serve the public interest.”
Right now, Schock is hoping the issue will be able to be handled locally in Illinois, but he’s willing to take it to the federal level if necessary.
“If we need to, we absolutely would pursue law at the federal level,” he said.
Madigan’s office says that protecting the identities needs to happen through the legislative process. FOIA allows certain information to be withheld from the public if it can be proved to be “information that would endanger the life or physical safety of law enforcement personnel or any other person.” In the reasoning for the decision that the AG’s office sent to state police, it said their review of court cases showed no indication or precedent that releasing names of legal gun owners and the date their FOID cards expire puts them in danger.
When asked directly about concern over whether it put constituents’ physical safety in jeopardy, the office reiterated it was a matter of interpreting FOIA court cases, not making public policy. The office points out that state police did not argue that the documents are not eligible to be released under FOIA; the argument centers on whether an exemption can be made. The addresses and phone numbers that accompany the information, however, are not to be released.
They also argued in their letter demanding the release of the information that it allows the public to monitor state police control of the FOID database and is thus worth the sacrifice of privacy: “[E]ven if disclosure of the names and expiration of FOID 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 ISP’s database.”
The context for the discussion has grown even more difficult in light of the president’s recent op-ed focusing on gun control, but Schock said he thinks the president is simply following his ideology, one reflective of his hometown roots.
“His hometown of Chicago – which he’s very connected to – has some of the toughest, most stringent laws against law-abiding citizens owning guns,” Schock said. “I think he’s just continuing with his ideology of limiting gun access for law abiding citizens.”
An AP story on the topic written by a John O’Conner, the same name as the one on the AP FOIA request, says that “[i]nformation about firearms – and the state police enforcement of gun laws – has been the subject of several AP requests during the past decade. In most cases, state police have denied disclosure.” He also references a specific case to support why the AP would take an interest in the information:
“In 2005, state police officials told the AP they were powerless to take action against a civilian ISP employee who had guns in his truck at the agency’s training academy, where he threatened his estranged girlfriend, also an employee. He later shot her before turning the gun on himself.
“A state police firearms official later testified in an unrelated court case that officials could have yanked the man’s guns but chose not to.”
The FOID issue will get more court time, with future hearings set for April 14. There are also bills in the Illinois state legislature, according to the representatives’ letter, which would ensure the gun owners’ privacy is protected.
Illinois Gun Owners’ Privacy Under Attack – Elisabeth Meinecke