GUN SHY: City published personal information of some gun owners

"Lawrence," holding the Ruger .380-caliber handgun for which he applied for a permit to carry, is irate that the city published his personal data on the new L&I website.
"Lawrence," holding the Ruger .380-caliber handgun for which he applied for a permit to carry, is irate that the city published his personal data on the new L&I website. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: October 23, 2012

LAWRENCE ISN'T a violent felon or a stickup artist with a lengthy rap sheet. He's not a drug dealer holding down the corner with a Glock tucked in his waistband, or a straw purchaser selling guns to street thugs.

He's a Philadelphia church pastor and a robbery victim who routinely carries large sums of money and drives a nice car. So he applied for a gun permit last year for his personal protection.

"It's not that I'm thinking God does not walk with me when I go places," Lawrence said. "But anything could happen. We're living in some bad times."

The last thing he expected was for his request for a concealed-carry permit to make its way to the Drudge Report's 1.9 million daily visitors.

Police initially denied Lawrence's application - apparently due to a misdemeanor 40 years ago for which he served no jail time - but he was granted the gun permit in December after he obtained a letter from state police and appealed to the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections.

Then something strange happened: Over the summer , L&I posted on its website Lawrence's full name, address and the specific reasons he wanted the permit - along with an interactive map to help users find their way to his doorstep.

The information was yanked from L&I's site at the request of police, but Lawrence and other angry gun owners - some who say the disclosure may have jeopardized their jobs - want the city held accountable. Lawsuits are likely.

"A lot of pastors don't believe in this. They could say, 'Why would you want to carry a gun? You don't believe Jesus will protect you?' " Lawrence said. "I'm not the type of person to spread that to my congregation and all the pastors I know. That's my personal and private business and they exposed that. It was done in bad taste."

Lawrence, which is not his real name, is among what is believed to be hundreds of gun owners that L&I literally put on the map - a clickable icon of a revolver appeared over their homes - when the department revamped its website in August.

Police say the disclosure raised safety concerns, and gun-rights advocates say it might have been illegal because permit information in Pennsylvania is confidential under the Uniform Firearms Act. The Daily News is not republishing the names or addresses.

"We have a local government that's operating out of control," said Kim Stolfer, chairman of Firearm Owners Against Crime. "It's shameful."

In Philadelphia, people who have their gun-permit application denied or their existing permit revoked can file an appeal with L&I's Review Board, which is appointed by the mayor.

L&I spokeswoman Maura Kennedy said those appellants were included on the interactive map, along with playgrounds, building permits, polling places, code violations and other data to "help citizens hold us accountable" and discover what's happening around the city. People who obtained gun permits without appealing to L&I were not on the map.

"We touch a lot of people's lives in a lot of intimate ways," Kennedy said. "We really wanted to give citizens tools."

But the data dump, even if well-intentioned, raises the question: Can there be too much government transparency?

Lawrence and other gun owners had their information published around the world after a Philadelphia magazine blog, The Philly Post, reported on L&I's new web app and the high-traffic Drudge Report linked to the story. The Philly Post redacted the names and addresses after L&I removed them from its site.

Police asked L&I to pull the information down because details about why a person wants to carry a gun, combined with his name and location, could make him a target of any criminal with Internet access, said Lt. Ray Evers, a police spokesman.

"We were erring on the side of caution to protect the confidentiality of the gun-permit appellants," Evers said. "We believe the information that was out there and the narrative - the reasons for having a gun and for appealing - should not be public information. There are some dumb criminals out there and there are some smart ones."

Jon Mirowitz, a Philadelphia attorney who specializes in firearms cases, is planning to sue the city on behalf of dozens of people who were listed on L&I's gun map.

"Why should someone have to stand up in front of the world and say, 'I'm a gun owner,' or 'I want a carry permit?' " Mirowitz asked. "It has a chilling effect."

Pennsylvania is among 29 states with laws to protect the confidentiality of gun-permit holders, according to the National Rifle Association, which supports those laws.

"When you go and put their private, personal information out there and make it publicly accessible, you're potentially endangering them," said NRA spokeswoman Jacqueline Otto.

But Mayor Nutter's spokesman, Mark McDonald, said the L&I information is public record because permit holders or applicants waive their right to confidentiality when they appeal a permit denial or revocation.

"It becomes a public thing at that point," McDonald said.

Some of the disseminated cases involved appellants who can't get a permit for legitimate reasons, such as a violent crime or a restraining order. But Mirowitz said many other appealed cases are resolved prior to the L&I hearing - including those in which the permit shouldn't have been revoked or denied in the first place.

"I've had times of mistaken identity, times when the victim of a crime in the database is listed as a defendant, times when cases are expunged and for some reason pop up again. All sorts of erroneous reasons" to deny a permit, said Mirowitz. He sat on a 1995 committee chaired by then-state Sen. Vince Fumo that added the confidentiality language into the state's permit-application process.

Lawrence still doesn't understand why the city published his personal information, but he wants answers.

"It was totally an infringement and I'm still upset," he said. "I'm appalled. It's a disgrace."


Contact William Bender at benderw@phillynews.com or 215-854-5255. Follow him on Twitter @wbender99.

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