Sandusky Register Editor Matt Westerhold Declares War on Gun Owner Privacy
By John Salyers and Chad D. Baus
In spite of many state legislators, county sheriffs and even Governor Strickland himself attempting to talk sense into him, Sandusky Register Editor Matt Westerhold has launched an all-out assault on the privacy and security of over 2,600 concealed handgun license holders in several Northern Ohio counties.
Citing a phantom "right to know", Westerhold, editor and self-appointed public records watchdog at The Register, published the list of CHL-holders from Erie, Huron, Ottawa, Sandusky and Seneca counties.
- EDITOR'S NOTE: The decision to make the lists available to readers was made by the Register's managing editor. All inquiries should be directed to 419-609-5866 or [email protected] Please oblige Mr. Westerhold by submitting a letter to the editor on this issue.
Matt Westerhold transplanted his anti-concealed-carry agenda from his former job at the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram, where he also ordered the publishing of law-abiding CHL-holders' names. More information on Westerhold will be made available in the coming days.
The "logic" behind his latest attack on gun owners' privacy was expressed in a June 10 editorial entitled "Taking aim at the public record".
Likening the decision to bear arms for self-defense to marriage licenses, court-related divorce records, political donations and salaries of public officials, the editorial argues that concealed handgun license information should be public record. The editorial repeats a tired, false allegation that "in its present form, the conceal-carry law provides no public checks and balances to assure the gun program is being carried out responsibly." (The editorial omits any mention of the statistics which Ohio's 88 county sheriffs present to the Ohio Attorney General's office four times per year.)
In other Register coverage of this action, Seneca County Sheriff Tom Steyer is quoted as saying "I don't understand why news media would want to publish this information."
The editorial asserts that "this isn't about a newspaper's right to know...It's about the public's right to know. It's about open government." But according to a Columbus Dispatch poll conducted in 2005, two-thirds of respondents said other Ohioans have too much access to personal information about them. The number of people who think more access is needed stood at just 37%. And 66% said they believe too much personal information is available to the public. (The poll also indicated Ohioans are more interested in records related to the activities of law-breakers than in personal information about their neighbors.)
More specifically, the Dayton Daily News conducted its own poll in 2005 on whether or not readers believe concealed handgun license records should be available to the public. Of the DDN readers who responded, 87% were against making the records public information.
It is clear that Mr. Westerhold should dispense with the "it's for the public" rhetoric. The public is firmly against his actions, as his letters-to-the-editor box no doubt by now attests. (His response to one such letter was limited to this snide remark: "Thank you for your thoughtful comments about your support for secrecy in government. If you would like to discuss this in more depth, please fell free to call me."
(Judging by his political cartoon on the subject, depicting a journalist pointing the loaded gun of CHL records at his own head, Register political cartoonist Don Lee seems to understand the public's sentiments on this subject far better than his editor)
The history of this fight goes back to late 2003, when then-Governor Bob Taft and the Republican controlled Ohio Legislature caved in to cries from the news media. An eleventh-hour modification to HB12, Ohio's original concealed carry law, allowed journalists access to the information to address their assertions of a need for "checks and balances". Far from being used for what the proponents claimed, the unpopular provision which became known as the media access loophole, was instead exploited by openly anti-gun editorial boards as a means of intimidation against gun owners.
The 126th General Assembly (2005-2006) saw several attempts to remove the media access loophole, which again received opposition from then-Governor Taft. The Ohio House of Representatives, in a 93-1 vote, sent House Bill 9, containing a provision which would have closed the loophole, to the Senate. In late December of 2006, however, Republicans in the Senate watered down the language addressing the loophole before sending the bill to Governor Taft.
At the time, the Buckeye Firearms Association website noted that passage of HB9 marked "the first attempt by the General Assembly to clarify its intent in giving journalists access to the records. [When the law becomes effective], the burden will be, as it has always been, on the media to honor the will of the General Assembly, and to prove they want the information only for the purposes they originally claimed (verifying training and background checks were being properly conducted), and not as a means of gaining access to foster a wholesale publishing of the list."
The Register's extensive coverage of Westerhold's decision to "out" law-abiding CHL-holders notes that Erie County Sheriff Terry Lyons filed a lawsuit earlier this year, contending the complexities of the statute made it impossible to lawfully provide the list of names to a journalist. The Register notes "that suit was shot down June 4, however, when Erie County Common Pleas Judge Tygh Tone ruled the law allowed for journalists to receive the information." Similar suits challenging the media access loophole from Sheriffs in other counties are pending.
During his gubernatorial campaign, Democrat Ted Strickland told voters he supported legislative efforts to close the loophole. Unlike his Republican predecessor, who reversed course on concealed carry after getting elected, Strickland told The Register he still believes these records should remain private.
From commentary written by Register editor Matt Westerhold:
- Gov. Ted Strickland supports a secrecy provision in the state's concealed weapons law because he believes Ohioans are better off not knowing who or how many people are licensed to carry hidden guns.
Westerhold is flat-out lying when he asserts that current law prohibits knowledge on "how many people are licensed to carry", and certainly incorrect to suggest Governor Strickland "believes Ohioans are better off not knowing" same.
- "Knowledge of who possesses a concealed carry permit may put permit holders at risk of theft attempts," according to a reply from Strickland's office to questions about the secrecy provision. "(It) may also put those who are not permit holders in greater danger because criminals could know they are not carrying a weapon to defend themselves."
State Rep. Chris Redfern, D-Catawba Island Twp., also supports the secrecy provision, saying there was no compelling reason the government should release the information.
"There is no reason to know who is a concealed carry holder and who is not in this state," Redfern said, adding that the secrecy provision has nothing to do with open government. "These are private citizens who've attended private training, passed background checks and received their permit."
Redfern, also chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said his support of the current law has nothing to do with politics or pressure from the gun lobby.
...Strickland and Redfern both said they are satisfied with the secrecy provision and do not intend to introduce legislation to repeal it.
The wording of The Register's story here is misleading. Strickland and Redfern were never in support of "current law" - the media access loophole passed in 2004 - Strickland spoke out against it and Redfern voted to reform it. What Strickland and Redfern are indicating is that they are interested in seeing how the modifications in HB9 work before moving for further changes. (The timing of The Register's data grab show that this was not a true test of the new loophole language passed in HB9.) [This paragraph has been updated to reflect the latest information.]
The Register offers nothing but snide commentary for Strickland and Redfern's refusal to agree with its position, saying "we know you're both too bright not to understand this, and we're very disappointed you don't have the courage to stand up and do the right thing."
But in "Gun advocates have praise for Strickland and Redfern", The Register quotes Ashley Varner, a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association, as saying that both men are listening to their constituents.
- The only reason the NRA has any power in Ohio is we have a lot of members who care about protecting their Second Amendment rights," she said.
Varner said newspapers that publish the names and county of residence of concealed handgun permit holders are putting innocent people at unnecessary risk.
"There are women who are hiding from abusive husbands or boyfriends," she said. "These are single women who may have been who may be afraid of stalkers, people who have been attacked previously and are threatened with repeat attacks."
"People with licenses are the most law-abiding citizens in our country," she said. "Less than 2 percent are involved in criminal activity. Criminals do not go through background checks to obtain guns."
The fallout from this action has barely begun, but it will no doubt be far-reaching. Already, subscribers are blogging on The Register's website about canceling subscriptions, and at least one local business, Windjammer Restaurant in Marblehead, has forced The Register to remove their paper machines from the premises because of this violation of privacy.
[UPDATE: We have been notified that B+B Auto Service & Custom Exhaust in Sandusky, has notified The Register to end all advertising.
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this inexcusable attack on your rights. We need your help in this battle as we prepare to implement our next steps.
Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes? Who will guard the guardians?