SPRINGFIELD -- The question of whether gun owners have the right to confidentiality pitted Illinois' top prosecutor against its statewide law enforcement agency Tuesday in an open-records dispute.
Responding to a public records request from The Associated Press, Attorney Gen. Lisa Madigan's office issued a ruling Monday night that declared the names of gun permit holders to be public information that must be disclosed. But the Illinois State Police, which oversees such permits, was preparing a possible court challenge once her ruling becomes binding.
State police officials have long held that releasing information about the holders of Firearm Owners identification cards would be an unwarranted invasion of privacy prohibited by the state public records law and that disclosure would automatically endanger the lives of gun owners or those who don't have firearms.
In its letter, the attorney general's office disagreed, saying the public has "a legitimate interest" in having the information about who has the right to possess a gun.
Despite the decree, the names likely won't be uncloaked soon. A state police lawyer indicated in a letter Tuesday the agency planned to ask a judge to decide the matter. And Republican lawmakers have filed legislation to make names permanently private.
Through the Freedom of Information Act, The Associated Press requested in September the names of each FOID cardholder in the state and the expiration date of each card. State police denied the request, prompting the public access counselor's intervention.
"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 cards," assistant public access counselor Matthew Rogina wrote. "The public, therefore, has a legitimate interest in ISP's enforcement of the FOID card act."
The attorney general indicated that addresses and telephone numbers of cardholders should remain private information.
There are more than 1.3 million Illinois FOID cardholders, state police spokesman Scott Compton said.
Media interest in the issue spurred lawmakers to action. There is Republican-sponsored legislation in both the House and Senate. Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Greenville, said his bill spells out that information about who is exercising his constitutional right to own a gun should not be made public.
"You can own a handgun, and information about whether you do or don't is private information," 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."
Most states, unlike Illinois, allow taxpayers to carry concealed weapons. Information was public when those laws took effect, but in the past decade, an increasing number of states -- as many as three dozen -- have put it under wraps, said Brian Malte of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
"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."
Information about firearms -- and the state police enforcement of gun laws -- has been the subject of several AP requests during the past decade. In most cases, state police have denied disclosure.
In 2005, state police officials told the AP they were powerless to take action against a civilian ISP employee who had guns in his truck at the agency's training academy, where he threatened his estranged girlfriend, also an employee. He later shot her before turning the gun on himself.
A state police firearms official later testified in an unrelated court case that officials could have yanked the man's guns but chose not to.
Checking the administration and enforcement of gun laws by federal officials was the city of Chicago's intent when it sued in federal court in 2002. Because Illinois courts have not addressed the issue, Rogina crafted his decision by relying in part on the Chicago ruling, which found no privacy violation as the federal government had claimed.
The state police and gun-rights groups also argue that publicizing names of those with permission to own guns puts them and others at risk. Knowing who has guns means criminals know whom to burglarize, or worse, said Todd Vandermyde, Illinois lobbyist for the National Rifle Association.
"You potentially make us targets," Vandermyde said. "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.
Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican sponsoring the Senate bill making FOID information private, called on state police interim director Patrick Keen not to release any information until the Legislature can act.
People who want guns but don't want their names publicized might choose not to comply at all with FOID laws, Dillard said.
"This is not about guns -- it's about privacy and public safety," Dillard said.