Wrong for troopers to withhold weapons numbers

By Sara Foss – Daily Gazette

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Not too long ago, a reader called to suggest I look into how many assault weapons have been registered under the NY SAFE Act.

The topic interested me, I jotted a note to myself and I now have the answer — or at least a partial answer — to the question.

Turns out we might never know how many assault weapons have been registered under the controversial gun control law passed in 2013. Ever since the law was passed, state police have refused to release the information, saying the law does not allow the information contained in its gun database to be released publicly.

Which poses something of a conundrum for those of us who are curious about the SAFE Act: How can we possibly assess the impact of the law if such basic data is kept secret?

Not everyone is buying the state police’s claim that the information is confidential. Earlier this month. the state Committee on Open Government issued an advisory opinion saying state police should release the number of assault weapons registered under the SAFE Act.

This opinion states that while the law makes application records maintained by the state police confidential, “there is no indication that aggregate data or that which can be derived from the records is protected. … Accordingly, it is our opinion that such non-identifying data is required to be disclosed upon request.”

In other words, the SAFE Act forbids the release of identifying information, such as the names and addresses of applicants for firearm permits, but it doesn’t bar the release of statistics related to compliance with the law.

This makes sense. There’s a big difference between publishing the names of individual gun owners and providing a number that can tell us how many guns have been registered under the law. If the state’s reluctance to release the registration numbers seems strange and even a little bit fishy, it’s because state agencies release aggregate data all the time.

The state’s Domestic Violence Dashboard Project provides statistics on domestic violence without listing the names and addresses of victims. The Division of Criminal Justice Services reports arrest data by county without including personal information about suspects. The Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance releases regular updates on the number of New Yorkers receiving benefits such as food stamps without disclosing the identities of the recipients. Would it really be so difficult to release numbers related to assault weapon registration?

I’m not opposed to all gun control measures — universal background checks, for example, have always struck me as a good idea — but I suspect that many gun control laws are passed hastily, as the SAFE Act was, with little research into how to effectively reduce gun violence.

Calls to ban or heavily restrict the sale and ownership of assault weapons tend to be popular, but there isn’t a whole lot of evidence that doing so would lead to a big drop in gun deaths.

A recent report by the investigative news website ProPublica found the federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 made little difference in reducing gun violence, mainly because “big, scary military rifles don’t kill the vast majority of the 11,000 Americans murdered with guns each year. Little handguns do.”

The article goes on to say: “More than 20 years of research funded by the Justice Department has found that programs to target high-risk people or places, rather than targeting certain kinds of guns, can reduce gun violence.”

If the ProPublica report is to be believed, the SAFE Act’s focus on assault weapons will do little to reduce crime or make the state safer, and the provisions of the law that target assault weapons are largely symbolic.

Which brings us back to the lack of information regarding how many people are registering their assault weapons with the state. Gun rights supporters believe most gun owners are refusing to comply with a law they regard as unjust and accuse the state of withholding the assault weapon registration data out of embarrassment.

Should the state release the data, the public would learn just how toothless this provision of the law is, they say. This might be true, or it might not.

But the only way to know for sure is by looking at the data, and the state won’t provide it.