COLUMBIA, S.C. - South Carolina is poised to become the 28th state to keep secret the list of residents allowed to carry concealed weapons, a move favored by gun owners but opposed by advocates of open government.
South Carolina is among six states with legislation pending that would close the information to public scrutiny, according to the National Rifle Association, which has advocated the measures that represent a battle between privacy and principle.
Gun enthusiasts such as Rep. Mike Pitts, who sponsored the South Carolina bill, call the publishing of the gun owners' names an attack on the Second Amendment.
'Having a concealed weapon means I'm supposed to have it hidden,' said Pitts, R-Laurens, a retired law enforcement officer who teaches a handgun safety course to legislators and their families. 'You're not supposed to know I've got one.'
Open-government advocates counter the government should never dole out licenses in secret.
'You need public oversight,' said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of Virginia-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. 'How else will you know if the state is issuing licenses in a fair way?'
But the legislature in gun-friendly South Carolina - where one in five legislators holds a concealed weapon permit, according to a recent review by The (Columbia) State newspaper - is ready to send the measure to Gov. Mark Sanford.
His spokesman, Joel Sawyer, said the GOP governor has not yet reviewed the legislation.
The bill would exempt the identities of permit holders from what's available through the Freedom of Information Act and grant access only to law enforcement or through a court order.
The House, which passed the bill unanimously last May, is set to take up Senate changes to the bill on Tuesday. They include requiring the state to publish statistical information yearly on permit holders and applicants, a change Pitts supports.
Pitts said he was incensed by a column last March in The Roanoke Times that focused on concealed weapon permits as a way to highlight Sunshine Week, the annual observance of open government and public records laws. The Virginia newspaper's online version included a link to the state's more than 135,000 permit holders and their street addresses.
'I can hear the shocked indignation of gun-toters already: It's nobody's business but mine if I want to pack heat,' wrote columnist Christian Trejbal. 'Au contraire. Because the government handles the permitting, it is everyone's business.'
The reaction was immediate. The newspaper pulled the link the next day, citing concerns that it might have included names that should not be public, according to a follow-up Roanoke Times article. An editorial noted the paper received complaints - some threatening - from thousands of readers.
'Prior to posting the database, we did not give sufficient thought to the possibility that the safety of certain individuals on the list, like law enforcement officials and crime victims, could potentially be compromised,' Debbie Meade, president and publisher of The Roanoke Times, said last year in a statement that the newspaper re-released Friday.
Gun activists said the easy access could have alerted criminals about where to find guns because permit holders generally own more than one - or could have given abusive ex-spouses or stalkers the new address of their victims.
Virginia state Delegate Dave Nutter said he received dozens of complaints, including from women who said they'd taken restraining orders on their husbands and from an airline pilot authorized to carry in the cockpit. Legislation he sponsored died this year after debate bogged down in whether other records should become private, said the Christiansburg, Va., Republican.
Though the Virginia newspaper is the one Pitts cites as fuel for his measure, NRA spokeswoman Ashley Varner said there have been at least partial listings of gun owners by newspapers in Tennessee, Ohio and New York in the past three years.
'We believe it's very important that law-abiding citizens in this country have their rights to privacy protected,' Varner said.
Dalglish counters that she doesn't understand why concealed carry permits should be singled out for privacy when all other licenses - whether for beauticians, bars or barristers - are public.
'I think they're trying to kill an ant with a sledgehammer,' Dalglish said. 'If their professed concern is victims of domestic violence, figure out a way to let those people get a special permit.'
To obtain a concealed weapon permit in South Carolina, a resident must be at least 21, undergo at least eight hours of handgun training, and pass criminal and mental background checks. A permit is not required for residents who keep a gun in their vehicle's closed glove box, console or trunk.
More than 61,300 South Carolinians hold permits to carry concealed weapons, according to the State Law Enforcement Division, which oversees the permit process.
'It's just dangerous to seal up state licenses,' said Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association, who has protested the bill at legislative hearings. 'It's an argument on principle. Nothing good happens in secret when it comes to government.'
Advocates for domestic violence victims said it's 'highly unlikely' that victims would have a concealed weapon permit, since they're discouraged from having guns. Still, they agree with closing access to protect any who do, said Rebecca Williams, spokeswoman for the state Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.
'In most cases, what ends up happening is the gun is used against them by the abuser. Our position is not to have a gun in the situation at all,' she said. 'But, in any case, we don't want to jeopardize victims' safety.'
SideBar: At a glance
The following are the 27 states that prevent the public from accessing information on who holds a concealed weapons permit:
· New Hampshire
· New Mexico
· North Dakota
· South Dakota
Source: The National Rifle Association