Gun group sues police in Pennsylvania over database

Gun group sues police in Pennsylvania over database

BY DONNA YOUNG | GCN STAFF

A gun association is suing the Pennsylvania State Police and Gov. Tom Ridge's administration for keeping a database of handgun sales.

The Allegheny County Sportsmen's League filed a lawsuit in the Commonwealth Court of Harrisburg asking the court to order the database destroyed.

The league is arguing that state law prohibits the State Police from keeping applications and records of lawful handgun sales.

The suit maintains that the state's Uniform Firearms Act requires the state to destroy all handgun applications and record-of-sale forms within 72 hours after the completion of required background checks.


Pennsylvania State Police commissioner Paul Evanko rejects charges that a state database comprises an illegal gun registry.
Mike Slavonic, the league's legislative committee chairman, said the database violates the rights of handgun owners and is illegal under Pennsylvania law.

'It's an invasion of privacy,' Slavonic said. 'If there ever were to be a successful ban on handguns, their illegal registry sets the stage for people to be investigated for owning firearms.'

But Maj. Ronald Hackenberg, director of the State Police Bureau of Records and Identification, said the database is not an illegal registry.

'It is simply a database and does not qualify under the definition of a registry,' he said. 'We don't keep records like the motor vehicles offices do. It is simply a way to store records of the last known owners of handguns.'

The database contains records of handguns that were legally sold in Pennsylvania, including each handgun's make, caliber and serial number, and the name, birth date and Social Security number of the purchaser, Hackenberg said.

'We don't keep records of handguns that were sold out of our state or keep information about people that already own handguns when they move into the state,' he said.

100-year-old files

Hackenberg said the database contains about 8 million records that have been compiled since 1933 and includes some sale records dating as far back as 1901. State officials moved the database to an automated system in the late 1970s, Hackenberg said.

The Fire Arm Application/Record of Sale database resides on a Unisys ClearPath HMP IX server.

Concerned members of the commonwealth's legislature sent a letter last May to the State Police charging that the database met the definition of a registry and therefore violated state law.

In June, the State Police received an additional letter signed by 20 legislators expressing concerns about whether the database violated the law.

Rep. Daryl D. Metcalfe followed up in September with another letter demanding to know if the State Police planned to 'comply with the law or whether they will continue this gun registry.'

Database of leads

In his response, State Police commissioner Paul J. Evanko fired back that state law gives the State Police authority to 'collect and classify, and keep at all times available, complete information useful for the detection of crime, and the identification and apprehension of criminals.'

'The database information simply helps us investigate leads when a gun is used in a crime,' Hackenberg said. 'We have had several instances when using information from the database has helped us solve a crime or return stolen guns to their rightful owners.'

But Slavonic stands firm that the database is a gun registry and that State Police are ignoring the commonwealth's laws.

'If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it's a duck,' Slavonic said.

The league filed for an injunction in January to have the database destroyed, but the motion was denied.

A trial date for the suit has not yet been set.

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