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A man fires a handgun at an Imperial shooting range in this 2008 file image. Photo by Erik M. Lunsford, elunsford@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY • The Missouri Highway Patrol admitted on Thursday that it released the names of more than 163,000 Missourians who have concealed weapons permits to a federal agent twice in the past two years.

Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration maintains that the releases were legal and done to aid an investigation, but that has done little to calm Republicans’ concerns over what they see as a breach of privacy rights and potential evidence of intrusive gun tactics from the federal government.

“I’m very concerned that this may be a back-door attempt to create the Eric Holder gun registry,” said House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, referring to the U.S. attorney general. “Missourians are very much opposed to this type of government overreach and intrusion.”

The admission comes as statehouse Republicans are decrying the state’s new method of scanning images of personal documents needed for drivers license registrations. It also emerged as a new flashpoint in a national debate over gun rights in the wake of the child murders in Newtown, Conn.

Missouri Highway Patrol Col. Ron Replogle told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday that a Social Security Administration agent based in St. Louis wanted the concealed-carry permit information for an investigation into disability fraud related to mental illness claims.

The list of permit holders was going to be compared with a list of Social Security recipients to see whether anyone who had met the mental health qualifications for a concealed carry permit had also sought benefits for a mental illness. Replogle said the encrypted information was mailed to the agent twice on password-protected discs, but both times, the agent was unable to access the data.

“In our opinion, it was a criminal investigation,” Replogle said.

The Social Security Administration did not respond to requests for comment from the Post-Dispatch.

Senators weren’t eased by the fact that the lists were never opened.

“The harm isn’t actually that they were read or not read, the harm is that, with reckless abandon, what is a private database in the state of Missouri with private information … was given out on discs with apparently not even a written request,” said Senate Appropriations Chair Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia. “That’s the issue.”

Under state law, disclosing information about concealed carry holders is a misdemeanor, and Schaefer said he believed the release of the lists violated that law.

But Department of Public Safety deputy director Andrea Spillars said the sharing of information among law enforcement agencies was legal and common.

She told the Appropriations Committee the agency could do it again legally, but the department recently implemented a policy to require such requests to undergo additional scrutiny.

Nixon, in Kirkwood to survey tornado damage Thursday, also told the Post-Dispatch that the state agencies acted within their legal authority.

“I’ll only say that, as is our usual process and procedure, we’ve followed the laws and we’ll continue to,” said Nixon, a Democrat.

But Republicans quickly seized on the privacy issue, which had been steadily building amid speculation over the administration’s handling of private information related to drivers licenses by the Department of Revenue.

“This is a big breach of public trust,” said Sen. Dan Brown, a Republican from Rolla on the Appropriations Committee.

The Highway Patrol got the concealed carry lists from the Department of Revenue’s licensing arm, which maintains the data. But the release of the concealed carry lists apparently had nothing to do with the DOR’s new licensing system that lawmakers have been investigating for several weeks. The first concealed carry list was sent in November 2011, before the new system went into effect, and Replogle said the Revenue Department probably had had the ability to compile one for several years.

Jones said concerns over the concealed carry lists and Missouri’s new drivers licenses were “intertwined.” Without the ongoing investigation into the licenses and the Department of Revenue’s handling of private information, it’s unlikely that lawmakers would have stumbled upon the details of the release of the concealed carry lists, he said.

Lawmakers began airing concerns over the Department of Revenue’s new license system last month, and questions primarily focused on whether it was being used to send data to the federal government or implement the federal Real ID Act in violation of state law. The new process includes electronic scanning of personal identification documents, including birth certificates, marriage licenses and concealed carry certifications.

In several hearings at the Capitol, officials from the Revenue Department told lawmakers that the new process was intended to make licenses more secure. They have repeatedly said the new scanning policy is not an attempt to implement Real ID and the process is not being used to share documents with the federal government.

Schaefer said finding out about the concealed carry lists was “like extracting teeth.” After hours of inquiry, with questions often repeated in varying ways, Schaefer latched onto the issue of whether concealed carry lists had ever been created and shared outside of the new system. After some vague answers, officials eventually admitted Wednesday night that the Department of Revenue had given concealed carry lists to the state Highway Patrol.

Later in the evening, they returned to say that Highway Patrol handed the information over to a federal agent. Replogle’s testimony, filing in the details of the federal requests, came Thursday morning, but early reports had already started to garner national attention.

Some Republicans called on Nixon to fire those responsible for the release. They also have accused the governor’s administration of covering up the details.

Missouri Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, sent letters to officials in the Social Security Administration and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Thursday seeking more information about the federal government’s role in the information release.

“It is clearly a violation of one’s personal privacy, not to mention Missouri law, and I cannot adequately express to you my incredible concern over this request,” Luetkemeyer wrote in the letters, requesting specific details about the nature of the request, as well as private meetings with top federal officials.

State Auditor Tom Schweich is auditing the Department of Revenue. The House Government Oversight Committee has launched its own investigation, and Jones said he would give the committee the power to subpoena for information — a tactic Schaefer used in his investigation of whether Revenue is working toward Real ID requirements.

Jones also has called on Attorney General Chris Koster to appoint an independent investigative committee to look into the Department of Revenue’s handling of private information. Koster’s office did not respond to the Post-Dispatch’s request for comment.

Meanwhile, the state House and Senate have each given early approval to legislation that would block the Revenue Department from scanning documents used to obtain drivers licenses.

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