Tip of the Day: How to Obtain Gun Permit Records
October 6, 2017―5 minute read
In this article, you'll learn:
You may not realize it, but it's possible for reporters to obtain lists of area gun owners―information that can often yield interesting information.
If no other journalist in your city or town has done so already, be the first to ask the local police department or licensing agency for the full list of everyone in your area with a gun permit.
It can be valuable information, especially in light of the spike in mass shootings and renewed debate over gun control measures. We're not saying that a story linking Las Vegas killer Stephen Paddock to his many weapons could have stopped him or deterred his behavior in any way, but publishing the names of pistol packers adds a meaningful measure of public scrutiny regarding officially sanctioned firearms.
Licenses are typically issued for so-called long guns ― which are rifles ― and handguns, whose permits are commonly divided between those for home use only ("premise") and those for concealing a weapon while in public ("carry"). Carry licenses, particularly in big cities with hundreds of homicides annually, can be difficult to obtain.
New York City, for example, is known as the toughest place in the country to get a carry permit, yet there are more than 3,000 people who have them, along with 30,000 or so with premise permits. When I worked for the New York Post, we used the state's Freedom of Information Law to secure their names, resulting in this front page story, which in turn spurred a regular series.
Since then, the matter of requesting such information has become sensitive, and a few jurisdictions have successfully prevented journalists from getting these lists by arguing that revealing the names of permit holders violates their privacy. In 2013, the Journal News in Westchester, New York, filed a suit demanding that neighboring Putnam county turn over its list of gun license holders after it had denied a request for the registrants.
Police departments often resist giving out data on principle, no matter what the request involves, so it might not be the easiest thing in the world to get them to hand over your licensees.
You almost certainly will need to communicate with the issuing agency, submit one or more freedom of information requests, and use any personal powers you might possess ― pleading, cajoling, threatening ― to move the process along. In some cases, police departments will redact key bits, including the addresses of permit holders, how long they've had a license, what type of gun they own and other relevant details.
If you need help, ask us.
At the Post, we focused on various aspects of gun ownership, including celebrities with licenses such as Donald Trump and his sons, people who had their permits taken away and those who applied but were denied, which the NYPD will do for any reason without having to explain itself. Some who got turned down have sued the department.
When we first started, the police handed over hundreds of printed out pages, and it was no small task to pour over the list, highlight those with notable names and confirm that they were the people we thought they might be. A fair amount of information came from conversations we had with supervisors in the NYPD's licensing division. Here is the last piece I did on this issue.
Now, the department releases the list electronically, which makes reporting on the names ― and extracting data ― more manageable. And that's a good thing since its license division has been hit over the years by multiple bribery and corruption scandals, including this one.
So we encourage you to give this a try. Make sure you ask for the most recently available data, use as much pressure as is required to get compliance, and stay in touch with the police all through the process, double checking every name you plan to publish and confirming with them as many details as possible.
Reporting on this issue requires persistence, but the effort is well worth it.
Let us know what you get.