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13% of ZIP codes on hidden-guns list fake

by Chad Day | February 10, 2013 at 1:51 a.m.

Three Arkansas concealed-handgun licensees live in the 75502 ZIP code. Two of them are men. The other is a woman. Or at least their names suggest that is the case, according to the Arkansas State Police’s list of permit holders.

To be on the list, they must have gone through state and federal background checks, have taken a firearms training course, submitted their fingerprints to the state police and signed an application with a checklist of more than 35 other relatively stringent requirements they have to meet.

The three in 75502 have done all that, according to the list, and they can legally carry a concealed firearm in Arkansas, says the state police.

But there’s a problem with the three, whose names won’t be listed here.

The 75502 ZIP code doesn’t exist.

Neither does the 12370 ZIP code, the 22658 nor the 92936, according to the U.S. Postal Service, which established ZIP codes back in 1963.

In fact, about 13 percent of all ZIP codes listed for the state’s concealed-handgun licensees don’t exist. That’s 116 ZIP codes on the publicly available list of Arkansas concealed-handgun license holders.

The list, which contains only the ZIP code, and first and last name of a licensee, is the only information that state police can release about those with concealed-handgun licenses in Arkansas under a 2009 state law that keeps private other personal identifying information about permit holders.

Last week, the Senate passed 24-9 a bill banning the public from seeing thoselast two pieces of information on license holders. That bill now is in the House Judiciary Committee.

If the bill becomes law, no one outside of law enforcement would be able to find out if a license was issued to someone who listed an imaginary ZIP code.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette came across false ZIP codes after obtaining a copy of the license list on Jan. 23 under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. The newspaper cross-referenced the ZIP codes on the list against the “Look up a Zip code” function on the Postal Service’s website.

“If it’s not in there, it’s not a ZIP code,” said Postal Service spokesman Leisa Tolliver-Gay.

Even Tolliver-Gay, when given a few licensee-listed ZIP codes, couldn’t locate them.

“Nope. I don’t see it,” she said of 71605. The same was true for 71608.

The anomaly is nothing new to the state police, spokesman Bill Sadler said Friday.

State police have known that the public list contained erroneous ZIP codes since January 2008 when the data were transferred from one computer system to another.

“I would call them quirks. I would call them computer errors,” Sadler said, noting that state police personnel “believed that they would be self-correcting errors once we renewed their licenses.” Licenses must be renewed every five years.

Yet, many of the errors remain, and Sadler acknowledged that since the errors were discovered in 2008, the state police agency has been releasing a list that contained faulty information, such as the false ZIP codes and other anomalies.

For instance, 17 license holders on the list don’t list ZIP codes. There are at least 58 others who list ZIP codes that are in other states. There are 20 in Texas, 10 in Louisiana, seven in Oklahoma and four in Missouri. A smattering more live in Alabama, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kentucky, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming, according to the list.

That’s despite the second requirement in Arkansas’ concealed-handgun license law: You must be an Arkansas resident or show proof that you are active-duty military personnel or a retired law enforcement officer.

After receiving a copy of the newspaper’s list, Sadler said state police are looking into the errors and the out-ofstate ZIP codes, and by late Friday had determined that some are from active military who listed the addresses where they’re stationed. Some of the others could be people who live in Arkansas but get their mail in a bordering state, such as Missouri, Sadler said, noting that he couldn’t say for sure until the state police agency completes a review of the newspaper’s list.

In total, the newspaper found false ZIP codes listed for at least 134 of the about 130,000 license holders, and Sadler said late Friday that the state police agency had discovered other problematic entries, in addition to those the newspaper found.

The state police plans to have all the errors corrected by Monday and have an accurate list made publicly available by Tuesday, Sadler said.

“We’ve noticed it all along, but we had hoped that it would be a self-correcting error as people renewed, and you caught it, and shame on us. We should have been on top of it,” Sadler said. “But we’re making certain that whatever may happen in the General Assembly that there is an accurate spreadsheet that will be in your hands that has the correct ZIP codes to match the name.”

The revelation of the errors comes as the House ofRepresentatives readies to consider whether to close off all public information about concealed-handgun licensees as proposed in Senate Bill 131. The bill would undo a compromise that legislators approved in 2009 that allowed the names and ZIP codes of licensees to be released under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

State Sen. Bruce Holland, R-Greenwood, who sponsored SB131 has said publicly that he filed the bill in response to a Little Rock doctor who voicedconcerns about a New York newspaper’s decision late last year to publish concealedhandgun permit holders’ names and addresses.

Holland, who has called the bill a “privacy issue,” didn’t return a phone message Friday.

In an interview, state Rep. Sue Scott, R-Rogers, said she would vote for the bill. Scott serves on the House Judiciary Committee, where the bill has been assigned.

“I think if it says concealed carry, it also should say concealed information,” she said. “What’s the purpose of having a concealed-carry if everybody knows about it?”

Informed about the newspaper’s finding of errors in the now-public list, she said she would need more information before saying whether she thinks the state police agency is doing a good job of keeping the license information up todate.

“I would need to speak with the board that governs them,” she said.

State Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, who voted against Holland’s bill, said the licensees’ names and their ZIP codes should be available so citizens can be informed about the people who live around them. It’s good information about “a public-safety issue and a public-health issue,” she said.

“I don’t think the bill was necessary. I think there is a public-interest balance that we’re trying to strike, and I don’t think this strikes that balance,” she said.

Elliott said she also believes that the information allows citizens to keep a check on their government, such as whether the state police agency is keeping accurate information, she said.

“How would we track whether our government is doing its job? How would we track that, if we’re working from bogus information? I am just stunned by that,” she said in response to the ZIP code problems.

John DiPippa, dean emeritus of the William H. Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, said Holland’s bill is an example of a classic balancing test of government openness.

“It’s privacy against this sort of public function to evaluate the process of government,” he said.

DiPippa, who teaches constitutional and public service law, said he doesn’t think public curiosity about who owns guns is enough to justify having all licensee information publicly available.

“But if the information is limited in a way that it serves the purpose of the Freedom of Information Act law, which is to act as a check on government to make sure it’s doing its job properly, then I think the balance shifts back toward openness,” he said.

DiPippa said he would support shielding license holders’ names but keeping the ZIP codes of licensees publicly available.

“Without any information, you are essentially saying, ‘Well, we have to trust the government that they’re doing their job because we can’t really verify that they’re doing their job,” he said. “That’s why a better approach would be to allow some information but not all of it, enough so that citizens can act as that check.”

Sadler said he doesn’t think the problems with the ZIP codes indicate other problems with the state police agency’s concealed-handgun license files.

The agency has access to much more information than “just an Excel spreadsheet that has a name and ZIP code,” he said. Such information would include exact home addresses or any other addresses tied to particular licenses. That also goes for other law enforcement officials, who would be able to verify 24 hours a day whether information on a confiscated license is correct, he said.

As for whether there are more inaccuracies on the concealed-license holders’ list, “I feel rather confident in saying no,” he said, “because there are so many cross-checks and references that are tied to not only state background checks but federal background checks. ... We’d know it’s correct.”

Front Section, Pages 1 on 02/10/2013

Print Headline: 13% of ZIP codes on hidden-guns list fake


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