Flanagan: Cutting access to public records only hurts Tennesseans

Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at 9:05pm
By Kent Flanagan

Secrecy is not the answer. Secrecy will not solve our state’s problems. Instead, secrecy will only keep from Tennesseans the information they need to make informed decisions at the ballot box and to remain informed citizens.

Whether it is details about what the Department of Children’s Services has done to keep the most vulnerable children in our state from harm or, at worst, death, Tennesseans need to know.

Or if it’s a new system of evaluating how well teachers in Tennessee’s public schools are performing, Tennesseans need to know.

Or if making public records of gun carry permits confidential will make the large majority of Tennesseans more safe in their homes, neighborhoods and workplaces, Tennesseans need to know.

In the first example, the public finally knows that DCS has used state laws and other tactics to delay the release of what should be public information about the circumstances in which more than 200 children died or nearly died since 2009.

But it took a costly lawsuit filed by a coalition of media and open government advocates to force DCS to produce information, which has been further delayed by questionable tactics by DCS staff and attorneys.

In the case of the teacher evaluation system, lawmakers passed legislation into law making information about the evaluations confidential, because as one lawmaker said, school administrators would be more honest in their evaluations if they’re not made public.

A few months later, a national report by the Bellwether Education Partners graded Tennessee down in part because the public is not allowed to see teacher evaluations.

Now, during the current legislative session, legislators will vote on legislation that would close public access to the Department of Safety’s gun permit database. This came as a direct result of the publication of details of a similar database in New York shortly after the horrific massacre of children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

So, why does this database need to be secret for roughly 350,000 gun permit owners who represent about 5 percent of the state’s population? A variety of answers have been offered, most of which include the right to privacy of gun owners.

Some fear that burglars will access the database for information so they can steal weapons from homes of permit holders. But the Tennessee database has been open to the public since 1996 and there is no evidence that burglars have taken advantage of it. In fact, some gun owners want criminals to know they are armed as a deterrent.

So why was the public database created in the first place?

Before the Department of Safety was tasked with creating and maintaining the gun carry permit information, such permits were issued by sheriff’s offices in all 95 counties. And in a significant number of cases, gun permits were given as political favors without regard to safety training or background checks. And the permits were kept secret as a rule.

The current legislation in Tennessee to close gun permit records is a direct reaction to the newspaper publication of names and addresses in New York.  It was legal since the information was a matter of public record, but was it wise? Probably not, considering that the New York General Assembly subsequently closed the records.

Similar legislation has also passed in Mississippi and Virginia.

But the impulse to “solve” problems through secrecy is in itself dangerous.

This legislation is part of a very troubling trend to deny public access to more and more public records. Since the passage of the Tennessee Public Records Act of 1957, more than 350 exceptions have been created through legislative action.

Who gains from closing public records? Generally, special interests.

Too many lawmakers seem to think that government information belongs to them to do with as they will, rather than to the public. With each successive exception to the Public Records Act, citizens are less able to monitor what their elected “servants of the people” and their fellow citizens are doing.

Just witness the ongoing story of DCS or the continuing saga of confidential teacher evaluations as examples of losing freedom of information gradually.

And, finally, consider the longstanding motto of the Johnson City Press: “What the people don’t know will hurt them.”

 

Kent Flanagan is executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. He can be reached by phone at (615) 957-2825 or email at kent.flanagan@gmail.com.

31 Comments on this post:

By: gdiafante on 2/27/13 at 7:23

Some fear that burglars will access the database for information so they can steal weapons from homes of permit holders.

Well, since law abiding citizens always claim that you can't keep criminals from weapons, at least this way would give those law abiding citizens an opportunity to use their guns on the bad guys.

But the Tennessee database has been open to the public since 1996 and there is no evidence that burglars have taken advantage of it.

Oh...so this is very much like the assault weapon debate...even though such a ban had been in place for years, the new version would repeal the 2nd amendment, create tyrants and police states, dog and cats living together...total chaos!

In other words, a bunch of paranoid gun owners. Go figure.

By: Loner on 2/27/13 at 7:28

An excellent missive. Thank you Mister Flanagan. As we know, abuse thrives in isolation.

“There is not a crime, there is not a dodge, there is not a trick, there is not a swindle, there is not a vice which does not live by secrecy.”
― Joseph Pulitzer

By: Loner on 2/27/13 at 8:23

“Truth never damages a cause that is just.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

By: Loner on 2/27/13 at 9:21

I agree, Gd...more hype from the fear-based guns & ammo industry...the NRA has its base on high alert...itchy fingers are fingering hair-triggers across the fruited plain...it's orchestrated mass hysteria, with the corporate bottom line in mind.....yes, sometimes, the masses can be asses...IMO, this is one of those times.

The 2nd amendment will never be abolished; therefore we have to learn to live with it...it is a congenital defect, I blame the Founders....they compromised, instead of standing their ground on the original sins...the price of uniting the former colonies was a bit too high, IMO....the chickens came home to roost in 1861...the South opted for the "Second Amendment Solution" to tyranny in Washington, DC.

By: Rasputin72 on 2/27/13 at 9:34

The truth has never hurt or helped any underclass citizen. The truth has wreaked havoc at many of the better country clubs in this country.

B.O.Plenty

By: gdiafante on 2/27/13 at 9:42

Technically, Loner, the South didn't need the 2nd amendment to oppose "tyranny in Washington, D.C. The Declaration of Independence already gave them the power with the following text:

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government...

By: govskeptic on 2/27/13 at 9:54

I agree with the author, but wish there was as much fervor from the press towards many other records that are closed as well. Every interest groups has legislators
yearly introducing some self-serving law to protect their selfish interest in closing
records they wish to keep private. Especially in Education, Law, and Business.

By: yogiman on 2/27/13 at 10:14

If an issue concerns the public, the public deserves to know the concerns and how their "in houser" 'sees' it.

When an issue concerns an individual (like a gun permit), the public shouldn't have access to personal issues.

By: gdiafante on 2/27/13 at 10:47

Gun permits are not a personal issue and as the article stated, they've been public records since 1996.

By: Loner on 2/27/13 at 10:58

Gd, the key phrase that you quoted is this: "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends,".

One must ask: What "ends" were the seceding states trying to defend, by way of armed insurrection, from "destruction" by the duly elected federal government, in 1861?

The Confederate Constitution is clear, African Negro slavery was the end and armed rebellion was considered to be a justifiable means to that end.

By: Loner on 2/27/13 at 11:09

The "well-regulated" Southern state militia, as authorized by the 2nd amendment, were the instruments of destruction. Sadly, the 2nd amendment has been used as a weapon of mass destruction; not much good has come of it...a whole lot of evil has been unleashed by it.

By: bfra on 2/27/13 at 11:11

Loner - Sadly, the 2nd amendment has been used as a weapon of mass destruction; not much good has come of it...a whole lot of evil has been unleashed by it.
================================================================
Please do show some examples of all this destruction caused by the 2nd amendment.

By: gdiafante on 2/27/13 at 11:27

Well, let's look at what precedes that text, Loner...

That to secure these rights (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness), Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Ultimately, what they were arguing was that they didn't consent to Lincoln and, what they perceived, his abolitionist intent. Though Lincoln said many times that he would not touch slavery where it already existed, but it wouldn't be advanced. They believed that the Feds didn't have the authority to do that, it rested with the states.

That gets us into the mess about nullification, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions...yada yada yada, which was argued for both the legality and illegality of the move. It's complicated, being (obviously) debated to this day.

Ultimately it was about slavery. I'm speaking of the legality of separation from the Union, which arguably existed in the Declaration of Independence, which predates the second amendment. Though, as I pointed out yesterday, the English bill of rights had the right to bear arms far earlier.

Funny, looking back at that rebellion, we don't seem to mind that they were legally armed, but since the South lost, we look at it very differenty.

By: yogiman on 2/27/13 at 12:00

Any record in a public office is public, gdiafante, but that doesn't mean it isn't personal.

It's none of your business if I have a gun permit and it's none of your business if I have a driver's license unless we are involved in an accident.

By: Loner on 2/27/13 at 12:16

Bfra issues a challenge: "Please do show some examples of all this destruction caused by the 2nd amendment."

The 2nd amendment was put into place so that Southern state militia could keep their slaves in line and to put down slave rebellions...James Madison and George Mason insisted upon it. After the Great Secession, in 1861, these state militia, authorized by the 2nd amendment, were used as the instruments of mass destruction, in the war the resulted from the Great Secession. Some 618,000 combatants died in the war, that alone should be sufficient evidence to back up my claim.

The thousands of civilian gun-deaths in this country and the sacrosanct nature of the Second Amendment are not unrelated....these deaths are also part of the mass destruction that I mentioned.

By: Loner on 2/27/13 at 12:57

Sometimes, there are unforeseen negative consequences of laws passed with good intent....this may be one of those cases...although, from the viewpoint of the African Negro slaves and the native Americans, the intent of the 2nd amendment was not good at all.

I suppose that "good" is a very subjective thing....King George III and a majority of his subjects did not see much in the line of "good intent" in the American Declaration of Independence.

By: Loner on 2/27/13 at 1:01

As far as public records are concerned, all those exceptions to the sunshine laws were put into place with good intentions..."good" from some special interest's viewpoint, that is. Review is long overdue.

By: gdiafante on 2/27/13 at 1:14

The intent, if any, was to perpetuate what the English had already established, Loner. Now, there's no doubt that Southerners used the amendment to keep slaves bound, but if you're going that route, you must include the North and the fugitive slave law, which allowed armed Northerners to keep the slaves bound and return them to the South.

The white supremacist attitude that plagued the entire nation was just as bad as manipulating the second amendment in order to keep slavery in check.

By: yogiman on 2/27/13 at 1:22

Loner,

Based on your comments about slavery, would you like to read a fact on your slave issue? Go to:
www.wnd/2013/02/father-of-u-s-slavery-was-a-black-man/

Enjoy.

By: yogiman on 2/27/13 at 1:25

I know most of you youngsters don't remember WWII but I'm sure you've read a "little bit" about it. Here is a bunch of photos for that time era. Amazing. Many of them even refresh my feeble brain.

www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2011/10/world-war-ii-after-the-war/100180/

By: yogiman on 2/27/13 at 1:33

Well, Loner,

I'm sure glad not many people get killed with any other cause of death that guns. You know, like hammers, baseball bats, ice picks knives, automobile accidents... you name it; someone can die from it.

You rarely read or hear about it, but guns in the hands of honest law abiding citizens has saved many lives. Should that be ignored unless you're killed by a criminal?

Doesn't it make sense God is doing his best to hold the population in line over this world? If you could only die from old age this world would get so populated the harvesters couldn't grow enough food to feed you.

By: yogiman on 2/27/13 at 1:35

Sorry, s/h/b than guns, not that guns.

By: Loner on 2/27/13 at 1:59

The Old South may yet rise again....check it out:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/28/us/politics/conservative-justices-voice-skepticism-on-voting-law.html?pagewanted=2

Snippet:

"Four of the nine-member court’s five more conservative members asked largely skeptical questions about the law. The fifth, Justice Clarence Thomas, did not ask a question, as is typical." (end snippet)

Justice Thomas, the silent brooder, may be given the opportunity to play the role of the "Ultimate Uncle Tom" on this hard-earned voter's rights law....he still works on the Bush Plantation and he done got his mind right, boss....his main concern seems to be when lunch is being served....that and Coke can security.

By: Loner on 2/27/13 at 2:07

Gd, as I said and cited yesterday, the 1689 English law specifically entitled PROTESTANTS to keep and bear arms, Catholics were not extended this right....the Founders used rather generalized language in the 2nd amendment, but in practice they mimicked the English idea.... that this was an exclusionary right; not universally applicable to everyone....it was meant to apply to free white men, not to everyone.

By: Loner on 2/27/13 at 2:10

Mr. Flanagan, can you come online and discuss your letter with us?

There is precedence for this, Mike Burch, a professional writer, comes online quite regularly, to defend his published views.

Thank you.

By: Loner on 2/27/13 at 2:31

More gun-related local color:

http://americablog.com/2013/01/tn-gun-ceo-says-hell-start-killing-people-if-obama-restricts-guns.html

By: gdiafante on 2/27/13 at 3:03

Of course it was only meant for free white men, Loner, that goes back to white supremacy. You can argue, quite successfully too, that Jefferson's assertion of all men were created equal pertains only to white men.

But regarding the 2nd amendment, there was no Catholic/Protestant divide in the the colonies as there was in England. The colonies were pretty much self governed by the 1770's and that included the citizenry being armed. They took what they considered the best of the English rights and modified them to suit the new world.

And, you have to factor in the need for firearms...security, food, survival, etc. It was a different time. But, to me, that's why the current interpretation of the amendment doesn't make sense. It was designed for technology and societal norms that are 200+ years old.

By: bfra on 2/27/13 at 3:11

g - Loner doesn't like the 2nd amendment, therefore in his mind it is the root of ALL evil having to do with guns. He is wrong, but I am not going to argue with him. Topic on the Internet now, dog shoots man. That is how far some people twist words.

By: Loner on 2/27/13 at 3:45

Please, do not misunderstand me on the guns issue. Let me reiterate my position:

My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I too want you to know that I do not shun controversy.

If, by "guns" you mean the infamous invention that has killed and maimed millions of innocent human beings; if you mean the Saturday-night-special used to kill a convenience store clerk; if you mean the assault rifle that wiped out a classroom of 1st graders in Newtown CT; if you mean the hand gun that killed a heroic school bus driver in Midland City AL, then certainly I am against guns.

But if, by "guns" you mean a hunting rifle that puts meat on the table in Appalachia; if you mean a gun that is a beautifully crafted family heirloom; if you mean the effective personal weapon that has saved the lives, the virtue and the property of countless would-be victims; if you mean the trustworthy, reliable tool for maintaining personal and national self-defense; if you mean the service revolver of a state trooper putting down a mad-dog mass murderer; then certainly I am for guns.

This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.

By: bfra on 2/27/13 at 4:12

Loner - That is a kinda, damned if I do, damned if I don't comment.

By: yogiman on 2/27/13 at 6:00

Loner,

There is only one thing you're guaranteed the instant you are born... your time in life God has given you. People die for different reasons at all ages of life. I believe if you study it a little deeper you might find different results, but I would bet you more babies (unborn people and even some half born) die by abortion than any other means of death.