The so-called Personal Protection Act now making its way through the state Legislature would allow concealed weapons virtually anywhere in the state, under the illogical theory that this would enhance public safety. But the most egregious part of this bill is its secrecy.
As written, the proposed bill (SB-214 and AB-444) would exempt "records created or kept under this section" from the state's open records law. Further, it directs that any records be recoverable only by licensees' names and license numbers to prevent the public -- even the sheriff -- from getting lists of weapons carriers in their community.
"After entering the information that it receives [from licensees], the department may not store, maintain, format, sort, or access the information in any way other than by the name of the licensee or the identification number assigned to the licensee," the bill declares.
This secrecy stands in stark contrast to the bulk of Wisconsin law. Records of other people licensed by the state (for example, social workers, acupuncturists, dieticians, barbers, funeral directors, etc.) are available to the public by name, address, license number, gender, zip code and the dates when licenses are granted and renewed. This disclosure helps assure the public that state requirements for these professions are met.
There are many reasons to object to this law, which Gov. Jim Doyle has promised to veto. (Republicans in the Legislature have promised to attempt an override.) It would let Wisconsin residents over 21 become licensed to carry concealed handguns, electric guns, tear gas guns and knives other than a switchblade, virtually anywhere. People licensed in other states would also be allowed to carry concealed weapons in Wisconsin under this law.
The penalties for going into a prohibited place -- an elementary classroom, for example -- could be as low as nothing and no jail time ("not more than $1,000 or imprisoned for not more than 90 days or both"). The penalties for obtaining a license under false premises are as low as $500 and no jail time.
But it is secrecy that takes this bad idea and makes it truly frightening. The bill would create, in effect, a secret police force whose mission it is to protect the public in a way comparable to other police, whose weapons, qualifications and past major discipline are matters of public record.
Proponents of the gun law argue the state needs to shield the identities of people carrying concealed weapons in order to protect those who do not. The theory is that criminals will use these records to target citizens who are, for whatever reason, not packing heat.
This is ridiculous, not in the least because even people not licensed to carry concealed weapons may still legally have a weapon in their home or business.
Members of the public have every right to know who is being licensed to carry concealed weapons. We deserve to be able to tell a licensee that he or she may not come into our business or home. We deserve to be able to file complaints against people who misuse their state license to threaten people.
The exemptions added to the bill before it passed the state Senate in late October are meaningless without access to information as to who is licensed under this act. A domestic-abuse shelter cannot know if someone coming to visit a resident is armed with a concealed and dangerous weapon. A parent with a child in a day care center or Head Start will never know -- and cannot find out -- if another parent or visitor has weapons on their person.
Finally, and most important, without access to public records, the public will never be able independently to evaluate the law, leaving it to bureaucrats and the NRA to tell us what we should think about it.
Pass this act if you will, legislators, but do no harm to our public right to know. It is the policy of this state that the public is entitled to the fullest possible information regarding the affairs of government as is compatible with the conduct of governmental business. We do not need or want secret police.
Your Right to Know is a monthly column produced by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a media group devoted to protecting public access to meetings and records. Ann Frisch, Ph.D., is professor of education and human services at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and one of the council's public representatives.