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New York to consider social media checks for gun license applicants

A state senator from Brooklyn has proposed a bill that would require gun license applicants to provide access to their social media platforms and internet search history to law enforcement. Licenses could be denied for threats of violence, slurs, and "biased language."

Hans Pennink/AP
Democratic New York Senator Kevin Parker of Brooklyn speaks during a press conference at the New York Capitol in Albany on Feb. 6, 2017.

Should authorities be able to deny handgun licenses for hateful tweets?

A New York lawmaker is raising the question with a bill that would require police to scrutinize the social media activity and online searches of handgun license applicants, and disqualify those who have published violent or hateful posts.

State Sen. Kevin Parker says he hopes his proposal sparks discussion about how to balance public safety and online privacy. The Brooklyn Democrat noted that mass killers often provide warning signs through their social media posts, as in the case of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting suspect, who ranted online that Jews were "children of Satan."

"It's a new time. It's a new technology," Senator Parker said. "It's time that we in fact start having that conversation about how we monitor social media in a way that we can create safety for our communities."

Free-speech watchdogs and even some gun-control advocates have raised concerns about the bill, which would require handgun applicants to turn over login information to allow investigators to look at three years' worth of Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram postings. Google, Yahoo, and Bing searches over the previous year also would be checked.

Licenses could be denied if investigators uncover threats of violence or terrorism or the use of racial or ethnic slurs. The process would be the same for five-year re-certifications.

The bill will be among many related to guns waiting for lawmakers when they return to New York's Capitol in January. While Democrats now control both houses, only a fraction of those measures are expected to make it to floor votes in the coming months.

Still, Parker has already succeeded at one of his goals of creating "fodder for discussion," including pushback.

At the American Tactical Systems gun range, a short drive from New York's Capitol, gun owners called the proposal unnecessary and intrusive.

"I don't think the government should have access to anybody's history, especially for pistol permits," said Steve Wohlleber, who works at the range. "And the state police have enough to worry about besides checking everyone's social media."

Even likely allies raised concerns.

Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence staff attorney David Pucino said while he shared the legislator's goals, he thought there were better alternatives, such as another bill that would create a court order of protection to bar people considered dangerous from possessing or buying guns.

Civil rights attorney Norman Siegel said he believes bill language directing police to consider "commonly known profane slurs or biased language" is too broad to pass constitutional muster.

"A person could be prejudiced," Mr. Siegel said. "That doesn't mean he's not entitled to his Second Amendment right."

On a practical level, the measure would mean more work for police in New York who already check the criminal and mental health histories of handgun license applicants.

Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple, whose department processes a few hundred applications every year, said "it's definitely going to bog things down a bit" in a licensing process that already can take from 120 days to a year to complete.

Parker countered that states have the authority to limit hand gun use for public safety and that many employers perform social media checks on job applicants.

"We certainly want to make sure we're putting weapons in the hands of the right people and keeping them out of the hands of the wrong people," he said. "Now, if you're afraid of your personal privacy, don't apply for a handgun license."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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