Attorney General Tim Fox said Monday he is denying a request from the Associated Press to turn over information about the state’s more than 30-thousand concealed carry permit holders.
The information includes names, addresses and driver’s license numbers for those with the concealed weapons permits. The AP made the request in mid-March, after the legislature passed a bill making the information confidential but before it was signed by Governor Steve Bullock.
Jim Clarke is the AP’s bureau chief for four Rocky Mountain states, including Montana. He said the organization has a long history of defending the public’s right to know. He would not answer further questions, outside of reading a statement:
"In general we refrain from commenting on our reporting efforts because sometimes they turn into stories, sometimes they don't and sometimes the information informs further efforts that may go in a different direction than what we first contemplated."
The bill passed by the 2013 Legislature to make concealed carry information private does not go into effect until October.Attorney General Tim Fox believes it doesn’t matter.
"Frankly, I don't think we needed a statute to protect this information," Fox said.
He is denying the AP’s request using the Montana Constitution. The state does have very strong open records laws, many of them resulting from the AP suing for greater transparency. But the constitution also places a lot of importance on personal privacy. Fox said with these types of request the public’s right to know needs to be balanced against privacy. He does not see a compelling state interest for releasing the information.
"Montanans have a reasonable expectation that their information will be held private when they apply for a concealed weapon permit," he said.
Miles City Republican Senator Eric Moore sponsored the bill to make the concealed carry permits confidential. He applauded Fox’s decision and pointed out his confidentiality bill had bipartisan support.
"The bill only had 22 'no' votes out of 150, it was signed by a Democratic Governor, brought by a Republican Legislator. I think the people of Montana feel that concealed carry permitees, most of them carry concealed weapons for a very good reason," he said.
A New York newspaper, The Journal News, made national headlines earlier this year when it released a map of concealed carry permit holders’ addresses in that state. The ensuing controversy had people strongly on both sides, with some saying it shows how widespread gun ownership is. Others said releasing the information leaves those gun owners subject to harassment.
Executive Director of the Montana Newspaper Association Jim Rickman believes the AP is making a reasonable request. He understands people’s reservations about wanting that information kept secret, but said it’s also incredibly important to preserve the state’s focus on transparency.
"If it's concealed weapons permits that we're looking at not having information on, what's possibly next in terms of the permitting process?" he asked.
The AP is not saying whether it will sue to get the information.