The state of Illinois is currently weighing this question. On Monday, state Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office issued a ruling that declared the names of gun permit holders to be public information that must be disclosed. But the agency overseeing such permits -- the Illinois State Police -- may challenge the ruling in court once it becomes binding.
The Chicago Tribune notes that state police officials have long believed that releasing such information about firearm permit holders would an unwarranted invasion of privacy and ultimately endanger the lives of gun owners of those who don't have firearms. But the attorney general disagrees, claiming the public has a "legitimate interest" in knowing who owns a gun.
The debate began after the Associated Press filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request last September for the names of each state permit holder and their permits' expiration dates. When the state police agency denied the AP's request, the public access counselor intervened.
"The General Assembly has clearly determined that it is in the public interest to provide a system for identifying those who are qualified to acquire or possess firearms through the issuance of FOID [Firearm Owners identification] cards," assistant public access counselor Matthew Rogina wrote at the time. "The public, therefore, has a legitimate interest in ISP's enforcement of the FOID card act."
The attorney general later insisted that addresses and telephone numbers of FOID cardholders should remain private.
On Tuesday, a state police attorney announced that the agency may take the matter to court. Meanwhile, Republican state lawmakers are planning to debate legislation that would make the state's 1.3 million gun owners' names permanently private.
"You can own a handgun, and information about whether you do or don't is private information," state Rep. Ron Stephens said. "There is no reason for anyone or any government agency to make available to you or anyone else whether I have a FOID card."
But Brian Malte of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence disagrees. "There should be public scrutiny on any licensing system, whether it's to own or to buy or to carry," Malte said. "The public has a right to know how well those systems are working, especially when it involves firearms."
Knowing who has guns and who doesn't means criminals know whom to burglarize, or worse, said Todd Vandermyde, Illinois lobbyist for the National Rifle Association (NRA). "You potentially make us targets... Or, on the inverse, you could say, 'These are the homes that don't have FOID cards so it's likely they don't have guns, so therefore they make better targets.'"
The state police made the same argument, but the attorney general dismissed it as "speculative and conclusory."
"ISP has offered no details to support its argument that disclosure of this information to the AP would result in a safety threat to any individual," Rogina wrote.
State Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Republican sponsoring the Senate legislation making FOID information private, also warned that people who want to own guns but don't want their names publicized may be forced not to comply with existing law if the attorney general's decree stands.