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How the NRA Pushed the Right to Pack Heat Anywhere

Thanks to an under-the-radar campaign from gun rights groups, more and more states are making it easier to buy and carry firearms.

| Tue Nov. 15, 2011 6:00 AM EST

Buckeye Firearms has also targeted journalists it considers unfriendly to its agenda. Nobody knows this better than Matt Westerhold, the managing editor of the Sandusky Register, a 16,000-circulation daily in north central Ohio. For three years following passage of the 2004 concealed carry law, Westerhold says, he had been getting calls from readers wanting to know if their neighbors had guns. The law had made it permissible for journalists to access information about permit holders, but a local prosecutor had gone to court to stop another publication from publishing that information. Westerhold felt it was time to take a stand; he decided to publish the permit holder information "as a public service." A list including the names and birth dates of some 2,500 permit holders appeared on the Sandusky Register's website.

For gun groups, it was a grave act of betrayal. The 2004 concealed carry law was never intended to allow for such wholesale publication of permit holder information, in their view. Rather, the idea was to allow journalists to determine whether specific individuals—someone with a criminal record, for instance—had a gun permit. But as they saw it the data dump gave gun thieves a road map, violated the privacy of permit holders, and discouraged citizens from getting permits.

See how concealed-weapons laws have weakened over the last 30 years: Legal Community Against ViolenceSee how laws restricting concealed weapons have weakened over the last 30 years. Source: Legal Community Against Violence

The reaction was fast and furious. "I was getting phone calls from all over the country, hundreds of phone calls," Westerhold says. "There were so many nut jobs. There were so many threats: 'I am going to kill you' and 'You should die slowly'."

Then the Buckeye Firearms Association got involved, Westerhold says, "in a very pro-active way." Using public records, the group posted on its website Westerhold's auto records, a traffic citation, a partial Social Security number, an address for property he owned, and details about his divorce and ex-wife. It also included information on how one might find out which public school Westerhold's 12-year-old daughter attended, which bus she took there, and how a photo of the girl from her school yearbook could probably be found in the local library.

"I never experienced anything like that in my life," Westerhold says. He says he consulted an attorney and took the information to a local prosecutor, who found no grounds to take action.

Irvine says Buckeye Firearms did not publish the information about Westerhold to be vindictive, but rather to show the editor how easily a "bad guy" might get information on any one of the people on the list that the Sandusky Register had published. "We could have gotten way, way more personal," Irvine says.

Do more guns lead to more violence?

Pro-gun groups' argument in favor of permissive laws has always been that an armed citizenry means a safer community. The data, however, don't corroborate that claim. A 2004 review of various studies by the National Research Council found "no credible evidence that the passage of right-to-carry laws decreases or increases violent crime." In Ohio, violent crime actually increased for two years after the concealed carry law was adopted in 2004, an increase the law's supporters say is due to other factors.

Still, at least four people with concealed carry permits have faced criminal charges for using their guns to kill people since the law went into effect. A Cincinnati woman with a permit shot and killed a panhandler in 2007 after he asked her for 25 cents at a gas station; she was sentenced to nine years. A man with a permit shot a Twinsburg, Ohio, police officer, who had pulled him over on suspicion of drunk driving; he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

At least four people with concealed carry permits have faced criminal charges for using their guns to kill people since the law went into effect.

Proponents of concealed carry permits argue that there are more examples of citizens using their guns to prevent crime or in self-defense. On its website, Buckeye Firearms cites the 2009 case of a 70-year-old great-grandmother who pulled a .357 Magnum from her purse and shot and killed an armed robber who had burst into her hotel room in Columbus.

But vigilante justice can be fraught with risk, particularly as it becomes possible in more places. Some restaurant and bar owners are struggling with how to implement the new law, worrying out loud about getting sued if they inadvertently serve someone who is packing. "Is there going to be a patdown? Do we have to ask every guest before we serve them a glass of wine?" asks Michael Singer, who manages the Barcelona Restaurant & Bar in Columbus. "Who carries the liability?" Since Ohio's law went into effect on September 30, at least one Applebee's has decided to exercise an option in the law that allows establishments to post a sign forbidding concealed weapons, in the hope of keeping armed people out.

But the momentum remains with the gun rights movement, especially as a growing number of Democrats are seeing little upside in voting against the gun lobby. If the National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act passes in the House of Representatives, it may well have key support in the Senate, too: Majority leader Harry Reid voted for a similar measure two years ago while running for reelection in Nevada.

Then, only a veto from President Obama would stand in the way—just as his own tough reelection fight really gets going.

This article first appeared under the headline "Locked and Loaded for Happy Hour."

iWatch News is the website of the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington-based nonprofit organization dedicated to investigative journalism.

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