MEDFORD — The Mail Tribune filed suit Friday against Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters, seeking a list of concealed handgun licenses as part of an effort to count how many license holders are teachers.
The question of teachers’ rights as license holders to bring guns to schools and how that affects school security are at the center of Mail Tribune reports on a lawsuit between the Medford School District and Shirley Katz, an English teacher at South Medford High School.
Winters, who as sheriff is in charge of the county’s concealed hand gun licenses under state law, denied the newspaper’s written request for the list, saying the information should be kept private.
The newspaper argued Winters’ refusal to hand over the documents is unlawful, as the licenses are public records under state law and have been released by other sheriff’s offices.
“A sheriff should enforce all laws without personal preference, and we feel Sheriff Winters is allowing his personal feelings to interfere with his duty to enforce the law,” said Mail Tribune Editor Bob Hunter. “This is information bought and paid for by the public, and the public has a right to it.”
The newspaper does not plan to publish the names of license holders, Hunter said. It wants the information for research about how far-reaching a ruling on the Katz lawsuit could be.
Obtaining a license to carry a concealed handgun in Oregon involves a criminal background check, completing a gun safety course and signing an application that specifically states that the license is public record.
There are about 6,500 license holders in Jackson County, according to the sheriff’s office.
Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office recently released the names, dates of birth and license numbers of license holders to the Oregonian and the Willamette Week newspapers but withheld addresses, phone numbers and Social Security numbers.
“We were reluctant to hand over the names because we don’t want to make it easier for anybody who would use the information for harm in terms of credit card fraud or identity theft,” said Multnomah County sheriff’s Deputy Travis Gullberg, public information officer, “but you can’t get away from the fact that it’s a public record. The application form spells it out.”
The Mail Tribune first requested the licenses from the Jackson County sheriff more than a month ago.
Before filing suit, it sought an opinion from Jackson County District Attorney Mark Huddleston. Huddleston declined to consider the matter, citing a state law that bars the state attorney general or county district attorney from interfering once an elected official such as a sheriff claims the right to withhold disclosure of a public record.
“It’s important for news media to take a stand on something like this because if public information is withheld in this way it will diminish the amount of public information the public is allowed to see,” Hunter said.
Winters said the sheriff’s office would oppose the Mail Tribune’s request in court.
For both privacy and safety reasons, “I don’t believe it’s anyone’s business who possesses a concealed handgun license,” Winters said.
The director of the gun rights group financing Katz’s lawsuit challenging the Medford School District’s policy banning employees from bringing guns on campus said as a matter of law, handgun licenses are a public record.
“Obviously, I’d like to see those people’s privacy protected, but I doubt (Sheriff Winters) has any legal justification for withholding what is a public record,” said Kevin Starrett, director of the Oregon Firearms Education Foundation.
Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Philip Arnold heard oral arguments Thursday on Katz’s challenge of the Medford School District’s policy banning employees from taking guns on campus.
It’s unclear when he’ll issue a decision on the case, which will likely have repercussions for other school districts around the state.
Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or email@example.com.