Legal breakdown of request for NIU shooter's gun card

Published: 4/14/2008 12:05 AM

SPRINGFIELD -- The Freedom of Information Act guarantees that anyone, not just reporters, can obtain copies of public records kept by the government.

The Daily Herald filed a FOIA request to the Illinois State Police for the gun card information of the man who shot and killed five students and then himself two months ago in a Northern Illinois University lecture hall. Though police officials replied within the seven working-day timeline as required by law, they denied both the request and subsequent appeal, citing occupational license and privacy reasons.

The initial request asked for a copy of the NIU gunman's firearm owner's ID card, including his application documentation, when it was filed and approved, and any other related correspondence or materials.

State police provided none of the information, saying the records were exempt for the following reasons:

1. "Information that, if disclosed, would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, unless the disclosure is consented to in writing by the individual subjects of the information."

2. "Files and personal information maintained with respect to any applicant, registrant or licensee by any public body in professional or occupational registration, licensure or discipline," and also thus, "constitute an invasion of personal privacy."

On appeal to Illinois State Police Director Larry Trent, the Daily Herald disagreed and in addition to repeating the request for the records, asked state police to clarify or explain how the gunman's records qualified for the occupational license exemption.

State police swiftly denied the request once again, repeating the same reasoning and offering no further explanation.

In response, the Illinois attorney general's office was contacted for assistance and its public information specialist said she contacted state police and urged them to release the records. She also provided the Daily Herald with a letter challenging the reasons state police cited for keeping the shooter's records secret.

"The exemption cited regarding licensing applies when a public body licenses with regard to professional or occupational registration, not a FOID card," Public Access Counselor Terry Mutchler said in the letter. "If a public body denies a request for information, the public body has the burden of proving that the records in question fall within the exemption that it has claimed."