Imagine, if you will, that a state legislator was promoting a bill that would allow the government to collect information on its citizens and hide it from the public.
What do you suppose the reaction would be?
In recent years, many Mississippians have grown increasingly suspicious of government, generally speaking. Many believe government has become too big, too powerful, too indifferent to the people it is presumed to serve.
The idea that the government could collect information that its citizens would never have access to would be considered the height of lunacy, right? Any savvy politician would steer far clear of such an outrage, perhaps remembering the dark days of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, when the state spied on its citizens and held that information in secrecy for decades.
Yes, it would be unthinkable for such a bill to be presented and would be ridiculous on the scale of the recent bill to reestablish a form of the Sovereignty Commission that such a bill would ever get out of committee, short of being laughed out of committee.
And yet, that is precisely what is happening in the Legislature.
On Wednesday, a bill that would seal records on concealed-carry gun permits made it out of committee in the Senate and seems poised to become law.
Why would our Legislature consent to a move that runs so contrary to the prevailing mood of insisting on open government?
Easy. It is perceived not as a matter of the public’s right to know, but instead, a gun issue.
And in Mississippi, when you attach the word “gun” to anything, it is viewed in a far, far different light.
The bill began as a reaction — rather an overreaction — to a misguided move by the Journal News of White Plains, N.Y., which published a map showing the location of all registered gun users.
That was all it took for our legislators to move quickly to make sure that Mississippi newspapers can’t publish the names of those who have concealed carry permits.
At its core, this is not a gun issue.
It is, instead, a matter of making sure citizens have access to the information our government collects about us. It is a well-established practice. Divorces, marriages, court records, wills, tax liens — all of that information is available to the public, and newspapers regularly publish that information.
Why, then, should concealed-carry permits be excluded?
Again, is it the fear that a newspaper would arbitrarily print the names of those people? Unlikely. In the days following the Journal News printing its map, the newspaper was besieged by angry readers. The paper pulled the map fast after public outrage and followed by a loss in circulation and advertising. You can bet they won’t be pulling that stunt again. It’s unlikely that any reputable newspaper would try it either.
Any freedom, any right we hold, is subject to be abused. We do not relinquish those rights because there is potential for abuse. Instead, we hold those who abuse those rights accountable. Rest assured, the Journal News was held accountable, and in a most painful manner.
Putting a single incident that occurred 1,500 miles from here aside, there are valid reasons why conceal carry records should not be concealed from the public.
After all, who is to say that those who issue permits will never abuse their authority? What if certain groups of people are denied permits? Certainly, our history indicates there have been many, many examples of this sort of abuse. In light of the potential for abuse, how would Mississippians ever know about it if those records are kept secret? Citizens rely on the media to be a watch-dog of the government. Sealing records allows the government to act with impunity. Who wants that?
The legislators may have good intentions, but the unintended consequences far outweigh the benefits.
Sealing public records is a drastic, over-the-top reaction to a single, unfortunate incident of irresponsibility.
Those who really want government to be accountable cannot support this bill.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.