The law of unintended consequences

“If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble,… “the law is a ass—a idiot.”
– Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, chapter 51

Why, you may ask, that particular quote, here on a quiet Monday morning at the end of August?

Especially here, in this blog, where we all usually delight even (perhaps especially!) in silly laws?

Truth be told, it was a toss-up between the quote above, from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, and the old adage, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

VA.concealedBecause The Legal Genealogist is quite sure the Virginia General Assembly had the very best of intentions back in March of this year when it passed into law Senate Bill 1335, “An Act to amend and reenact § 18.2-308 of the Code of Virginia, relating to concealed handgun permits; confidentiality of permittee information.”1

And the impact of those good intentions is imposing one hell of a burden on historical research using critical records.

You see, the purpose of S. 1335, now Chapter 659 of the 2013 Acts of Assembly of Virginia, was to protect the privacy of those who have applied for and received permits to carry concealed weapons. The fiscal statement accompanying the bill simply said that it “prohibits the clerk of a circuit court who issued a concealed handgun permit from disclosing any applicant information” and that it was “not expected to have any material fiscal impact on the court system.”2

Um… think again.

You see, the concealed weapons law in Virginia used to say this:

The clerk of court may withhold from public disclosure the social security number in response to a request to inspect or copy any such permit application…3

And now it says this:

The clerk of court shall withhold from public disclosure the applicant’s name and any other information contained in a permit application or any order issuing a concealed handgun permit…4

Please read that sentence carefully. And then tell me if you can find one word in there that limits this blanket “never tell anybody anything about concealed permit holders” to people who are alive today.

Keep trying.

We’ll wait.

Right. You got it.

It isn’t there.

And you know what that means, right? Every record that contains information about anyone who has ever had a permit to carry a concealed weapon in Virginia can’t be disclosed. And you know when Virginia first started issuing permits to carry concealed weapons?

Right around, oh, 1895.

And where are the permits and orders?

In the court records.

Ordinary every-day bread-and-butter genealogy-type court records.

As a result of Chapter 659, the notice you see above illustrating this blog post is what you will see at the Library of Virginia, Virginia’s fabulous state archives-and-library in Richmond, where — until this law was passed — you could simply pull a reel of microfilm out of a drawer and immerse yourself in the minutia of late 19th and early 20th century court records.

But the court record books and the index rolls to those record books have now been pulled from the accessible microfilm. And not just a few records. At last count, there were 220 rolls of microfilm including court order books, indexes of court order books, indexes to court cases that are affected. At least 135 of those reels contain nothing but records that are more than 100 years old.

And talk about no fiscal effect on the courts? Tell that to the circuit court clerks in Virginia’s counties, who now can’t simply let members of the public do their own searches in those older records but instead have to assign staff to do lookups in these older volumes for fear that one of them might contain a shred of information about an 1896 permittee.

There’s no need, right now, for the genealogical community to sound off about this issue. Moves are already afoot, spearheaded as the Library of Virginia notice says, by the archivist staff there and the Circuit Court Clerks Association, “to correct the unintended consequences of this legislation.”

But it sure highlights what can happen when the law supposes that there won’t be any negative effects from closing records. And when “the law supposes that, … the law is a ass—a idiot.”


SOURCES

  1. See Chapter 659, 2013 Acts of Assembly of Virginia, Virginia Legislative Information System (http://lis.virginia.gov : accessed 25 Aug 2013).
  2. Ibid., Department of Planning and Budget, 2013 Fiscal Impact Statement, SB1335ER.
  3. Code of Virginia, § 18.2-308, in effect as of 19 March 2013.
  4. Code of Virginia, § 18.2-308, in effect as of 20 March 2013.
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10 Responses to The law of unintended consequences

  1. Mary Ann Thurmond says:

    Well, Judy, it looks to me as if part of the solution is getting genealogists elected to all state and federal legislatures so someone can at least bring some good sense to the chaos of closing all records to the average citizen!! Which are you going to run for first—state or local???

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      If nominated, I will not run. If elected, I will not serve. But I will serve as an official public nag when I catch ‘em doing something foolish.

  2. Nancy says:

    And WHY should it be a secret about just who has applied for a concealed weapon permit? It might be nice to know that Joe Neighbor is packing concealed.
    The earlier law about redacting SSN from permit application makes some sense. But a blanket proscription of release of any information about permit applications seems like a lot of overkill.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      One reason is so that thieves looking to obtain weapons illegally don’t have addresses to target for burglary.

    • Rorey Cathcart says:

      Another is so that victims of domestic violence or other crimes against women aren’t putting the current physical location of those women at the fingertips of their attackers.

      Still, the pendulum has definitely swung too far in the non-disclosure direction.

  3. Catherine Lloyd says:

    According to the article link below, the NRA has been purchasing lists directly from the county representatives for years. Along with hunting license applicants. Interesting that the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries does not appear to have a restriction on providing the hunting license applicants but does withhold records relating to subscribers of their Virginia Wildlife magazine. I would think that hunters would be a more worthy target for firearms thieves. And less risky than trying to pry a concealed weapon off of a permitted carrier.

    http://www.buzzfeed.com/stevefriess/how-the-nra-built-a-massive-secret-database-of-gun-owners

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I’d comment on that, except that if there is anything I have learned over my many years in the online community it’s that you do not want to get into an … um … unnecessary discussion with the NRA.

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