Montana reporters with the Associated Press have been receiving online threats for more than the past week after requesting the public information available on the state’s concealed carry permit holders.
The request made headlines in recent weeks after the Attorney General’s office refused the request, citing privacy concerns.
He sent a memo to that effect to the AP, as well as to County Attorneys and Sheriffs. That memo was leaked to conservative Montana radio talk host, Aaron Flint.
Some conservative and pro-gun blogs latched onto the story and many threats were posted in the comments. Lee Newspapers Reporter Chuck Johnson detailed some of the threats in his story. Some of the comments were pretty extreme, such as:
“When the top AP Nazis end up floating face down in the river, they will think twice about f***ing with real Americans.”
“We need to track down and publish the names and addresses of AP executives, photographs of their children and the routes they take to school.”
Another posted a Google Maps photo of a Helena AP reporter’s house. AP Bureau Chief for Montana and three other rocky mountain states Jim Clarke issued a statement on the threats:
"The AP refrains from ever publicly discussing security measures affecting staff and that goes for war-zones such as Kabul as well as locations in the United States."
“I don’t condone it, in fact, I’m against it in the strongest possible words,” Attorney General Tim Fox said regarding the threats.
The Associated Press did file a report on the threats with the Helena Police Department.
Great Falls Tribune Capital Bureau Chief John Adams wrote a lengthy post to his blog, The Lowdown, defending the AP’s request of the concealed carry permits.
“Any time an open records request is denied, it’s a source of concern,” Adams said.
He said these types of broad information requests are common and having access to government data is fundamental to a functioning free press.
“We’re gathering data every day, we’re keeping it, we’re compiling it, we’re looking at it, we’re processing it and we’re generating stories from it. We’re not the NSA,” he said.
These stories analyze trends or point out irregularities. They sometimes take months to produce, he said. He points out Montana newspapers had been given information on concealed carry permit holders by at least two previous Attorneys General: Mike McGrath, and Joe Mazurek. Those resulted in stories looking at rises in the population with concealed permits, lawmakers who had those permits, whether they helped with law enforcement, etc. Never was the entire database released to the public and the AP says it never had any interest in doing so this time. Adams said if anything from this situation seems unprecedented, it’s an elected official denying such a request and then widely disseminating a memo explaining why.
Fox said it was important for County Attorneys and County Sheriffs to know his decision on the request, since those agencies deal with concealed carry permits. And he said his office was not responsible for news of that refusal reaching the press.
“All of the media attention on this issue has come from the media,” he said.
He says his administration’s policy on releasing information will be to look at each request on its merit.
The AP put in the request for the state’s public information on concealed carry licenses shortly before a bill was signed by Governor Steve Bullock to make it all confidential. That was back in March. The new law does not go into effect until October. The AP has not yet indicated whether it will sue to get the information.