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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Concealing motives for gun permit secrecy

By Bert

It was two years ago this week that a white, suburban, church-going, and gainfully employed man named Terry Ratzmann shot dead eight innocent people in Brookfield.

I resurrect that awful case not to provoke some fight about gun control issues. The fact is, that fight has already been provoked. So I bring it up to join in.

The website of the Roanoake Times published the names of concealed- gun permit holders in Virginia on Sunday. This brought down an avalanche of outrage on the paper, and also some local commentary from places where you'd expect it.

This revives the issue of whether an exception should be made to standard open-records laws so that the names of permit-holders should be kept secret in the states that allow concealed weapons for most citizens. This secrecy provision was part of the past debates here in Wisconsin on the concealed carry bill that Gov. Jim Doyle has vetoed twice.

The common objection to public access to these government records is flimsy. The story goes that criminals will diligently research these data, then surmise who is not packing heat, and victimize those not on the list. Please.

That reason is flimsy because it's not the real reason. The motive for secrecy is related to the pro-gun campaign's talking point that only lawbreakers commit gun crimes. The evidence for this is the claim that you can't find cases of law-abiding citizens who use guns illegally. It's only the "bad guys". Besides the circularity of the argument, you can see where they are going with this. They want to avoid bad press from the inevitable cases of the rare bad-apple permit-holders shooting wives in a domestic dispute, or getting likkered up and trigger happy, etc.

It's cases like Ratzmann's that don't fit the image of the bad guy that propels this campaign. In fact, setting aside for the moment that he killed eight innocent people, Ratzmann fit the promoted image of the decent, law-abiding gun owner. There is a reason why this case of gun violence is not trotted around repeatedly.

Instead, we hear more about the lessons we should learn from the case that occurred a month later in 2005. This was the older Arkansas man, stopping to ask for directions at a gas station on North Avenue in Milwaukee, who shot and killed a young man who tried to rob his van.

The pro-gun campaign depends on a manufactured message. It is a naive either-or vision of perfect people like you and me on one side, and exaggerated threats lurking on the other. Open records, and tragedies like Terry Ratzmann, contaminate that message.

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