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December 24th, 2008 JAMES PITKIN | News Stories
 

Gunning For Secrecy

Who’s packing heat? Sheriff Bob Skipper says none of your business.

     
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IMAGE: Dennis Culver

Multnomah County Sheriff Bob Skipper is joining in a statewide effort by law enforcement to keep secret which citizens are given the right to carry a concealed handgun.

In a reversal of longtime practice by his office, the newly elected Skipper has denied WW’s Dec. 11 request for a list of all 12,000 people licensed by the county to pack heat in public. He says only a judge’s order could make him turn over the list, which for decades has been disclosed by other sheriffs around the state.

“Right now, I just don’t see the public interest,” Skipper said, noting the list includes crime victims who could be endangered if he released the list.

But, speaking of public interest, it’s not hard to imagine ways disclosure could help the public check the sheriff’s decisions. What if a class of people were being wrongfully denied licenses? What if those convicted of domestic assault were given licenses, in violation of federal law? We’ll never know without seeing the list.

Skipper’s move continues a legal battle that began last year in Medford, where the Mail-Tribune had to sue Jackson County Sheriff Michael Winters to obtain that county’s list of concealed handgun licensees. The daily newspaper won, and the case is at the state Court of Appeals.

Mail-Tribune editor Bob Hunter says he’s more concerned about keeping records public than learning who’s on the list. But he notes the list could be useful to government watchdogs.

“What’s to prevent [the sheriff] from giving permits to his friends and not to his enemies?” Hunter asks. “There’s no evidence at all that that’s what has happened, but it certainly could.”

Hunter’s newspaper requested the list in fall 2007 after a local teacher sought to carry a gun in school. The teacher’s story and news of the paper’s lawsuit made headlines statewide.

The publicity shone a spotlight on an area of state law that was already controversial. In a 2005 statewide public-records survey by the Associated Press, just eight out of Oregon’s 36 counties disclosed concealed-handgun permit applications on request.

Multnomah County was among those eight. Deputy Travis Gullberg, former public-information officer for the Multnomah County sheriff’s office, told the Mail-Tribune last year, “You can’t get away from the fact that it’s a public record.”

The county’s application even states in bold type: “This application is public record.” Former Sheriff Bernie Giusto (never thought we’d miss him) last gave the list to WW in 2007 when we asked for it.

Skipper’s new direction follows the lead of Washington County Sheriff Rob Gordon, who last month wrote all 10,000 Washington County license holders asking whether they wanted their names disclosed. Nearly 8,000 responded they didn’t.

The Oregon State Sheriff’s Association has since weighed in on the side of secrecy. Skipper, who replaced Giusto when Giusto resigned last summer, says he began working with the county attorney’s office to keep the records out of the public eye after Gordon spotlighted the issue. He said WW is the only media outlet that’s since requested the list.

In a letter to WW, Assistant County Attorney Jacqueline Weber says state law exempts the list from disclosure because it contains personal and security information. Those are the same legal arguments that were shot down in the Jackson County case, but that judge’s decision will apply statewide only if it’s upheld by higher courts.

The Court of Appeals has not yet set a date to hear the Jackson County case. But even after that’s decided, Gordon’s belief that he can exempt the records based on the license holders’ permission could also be challenged in court.

“Clearly there’s a lot of creativity being attempted here to make these exemptions apply,” says Portland media lawyer Duane Bosworth. “It probably is something for the Legislature to decide.”


FACT: WW has appealed Skipper’s decision to Multnomah County District Attorney Michael Schrunk, who has not yet made a decision.
 
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