Opinion

Jack Shafer

Let’s not go crazy over publishing gun lists

By Jack Shafer
January 2, 2013

Once they get started, gun debates take but a few minutes to mutate into rhetorical riots in which responsible gun owners accuse their critics of wanting to confiscate their guns and anti-gun activists damn all gun owners as accomplices to murder. The debate-to-riot progression was replayed once again following the Dec. 14 Newtown, Connecticut, school massacre, when into this volatile atmosphere stepped the nearby Gannett-owned Westchester Journal News, publishing a Dec. 23 story and a map detailing the names and home addresses of every pistol permit-holder in New York’s Westchester and Rockland counties.

Undeterred by the fact that the handgun data was, by state law, a matter of the public record, aggrieved gun owners retaliated. A crowdsourced map of the home addresses of Journal News employees — including their home and work phone numbers when found — went up. The site also listed the names and addresses of the paper’s local and national advertisers, suggesting Journal News readers write letters threatening to boycott their goods and services unless the Journal News took its map down. The New York State & Pistol Association urged a boycott of all Gannett enterprises, asserting that the map had “put in harm’s way tens of thousands of lawful license holders.”

Neighboring Putnam County has rejected the Journal News‘ request for its pistol permit-holder list. “[T]he egghead editors at the Journal News can kiss my white, Irish behind,” said State Senator Greg Ball, backing the county’s resistance.

Gun owners were not the Journal News‘ only critics. Al Tompkins, who works at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, took the peculiar position that the Journal News’ big mistake was writing such a lame story to go with its map. (The usually reliable Erik Wemple of the Washington Post made a similar point, quoting with approval the assessment of veteran investigative reporter James Grimaldi, “Really, it is a data dump with little analysis.”) Had the paper shown flaws in the gun-permitting system, Tompkins wrote, or shown how political connections created exemption from permitting, or correlated the number of permits with crime rates, or population density, or income, “then journalists could better justify the privacy invasion.”

Exactly how publishing public-record data constitutes privacy invasion is a topic worthy of a Poynter Institute seminar. By its very definition, the public record is not private. Under New York state law, the information the Journal News obtained from Westchester and Rockland county authorities can be obtained by anybody who asks for it. And even though it will deflate the sails of the boycotters, their protest is futile. No law prevents individuals from making the same pistol permit request from the counties and posting their own maps if Gannett and the Journal News surrender and delete theirs. I’d wager that somebody has already scraped the data from the Journal News site and will repost it if the paper goes wobbly.

Likewise, the idea that a tepid story somehow negates a superb data dump escapes me. Sometimes the data dump is the news, as any reader of birth announcements, death notices, stock tables, batting-average tables, real estate transactions, and legal notices will attest! Surely it was considered vital news to many in Westchester and Rockland that their neighbors were packing portable heat. Will Wemple, Grimaldi, and Tompkins be mollified if somebody attaches the Journal News data set to a slicker narrative? If so, I’m sure the Journal News can accommodate them.

In fact, the Journal News has already accommodated them. In a Dec. 10, 2006, report, the paper investigated the failure of the counties to account for the guns belonging to licensed gun owners who have died. The reportorial package included, yes, the online publication of the names of more than 30,000 permit holders in the two counties. This naturally angered gun owners. In its followup report, the Journal News found that the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, which is now advocating a Gannett boycott, was working both sides of the issue: It was calling for the lists to be restricted to police while simultaneously suing New York City for its permit list, presumably desired for fundraising and membership drive purposes.

The idea, advanced by many gun owners, that the map subjects law-abiding handgun owners to home assault by criminals who want to steal their guns seems fanciful. In my short juvenile career as a breaking-and-entering artist, we never trespassed where we knew we might be greeted by a gun barrel. A recent academic paper (pdf) indicates that criminals keep tabs on this sort of data. In 2008, the Commercial Appeal published a searchable database of names, zip codes, and ages of people in Tennessee permitted to carry handguns. The hue and cry was very much like that seen recently in Westchester and Rockland. After plowing through crime data, researchers Alessandro Acquisti and Catherine Tucker found that burglary risk increased in places with fewer permits and decreased where permits were greater. “Our findings provide suggestive evidence of criminals’ usage of online tools for offline crimes,” they wrote.

Besides, the Journal News interactive handgun map woefully understates the private armories in its readership area. Rifles and shotguns, which dwarf handguns in numbers, are not registered in those counties. Any thief who uses the map to navigate to unarmed households could find himself unpleasantly surprised.

Whatever your gun views, now is probably not the best time to decide how you feel about the mapping of New York state’s registered pistol owners. Nobody thinks clearly during a riot.

******

I think clearly only after self-medicating with caffeine. Send Starbucks gift certificates to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and see my Twitter feed for additional tips on central nervous system stimulation. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTO: Guns that were turned in by their owners are seen in a trash bin at a gun buyback held by the Los Angeles Police Department following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, in Los Angeles, California, December 26, 2012. REUTERS/David McNew

Comments
27 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Anyone who walks on public streets is in the public eye, and has no right to an expectation of public privacy. So if I follow abortion providers home and publish their names and address, you’re cool with that, right?

More to the point, the claim that this data was already ‘public’ is disingenuous to the point of flat out dishonesty. The data sat in files, unexposed to the ‘public,’ as Shafer well knows. The difference between access by visiting a government office and access by Internet should not have to be defined in 2013.

The whole point of the publication of this list was to make it ‘public.’ A little honesty goes a long way – even in journalism.

Posted by MarkBee | Report as abusive
 

While it wouldn’t personally bother me to be included on the map, I think it’s obvious that the intention of that “newspaper” was to “out” gun owners and embarrass them. Hopefully, the morons running Gannett and this paper in particular will think twice or more before doing something this stupid and transparent in the future. I hope they have to hide behind their armed guards for a long time.

Posted by mddickens | Report as abusive
 

It’s not simple, it a question of balance. Anyone on a public street if fair game for video, if they are in the picture incidentally, but if you focus on them and follow them, that becomes harassment under law – a course of action directed at a particular person, which annoys the person, which would annoy any person, and WHICH HAS NO LEGITIMATE PURPOSE.

There is a difference between something being public, and being publicized. Having attention called to yourself, particularly by people who oppose your views, is reasonably objectionable to anyone. The question is, is there a legitimate purpose.

I say there is no legitimate purpose to this data dump, and an investigative article dealing with the effectiveness or not of the system would be a legitimate purpose.

Also overlooked is that like it or not, owning arms is a federally protected civil right in the U.S., and publicizing the names of those who have exercised this right, against their objections, amounts to discrimination in retaliation for exercise of a federally protected civil right, which is unconstitutional.

Compare to publishing the names of all the disabled parking placard holders. Surely it’s a public record, but what legitimate purpose is achieved by the publishing of this public record? Public records are usually published for shaming purposes. Public and published are two different things.

Posted by JohnyKing | Report as abusive
 

I suspect one reason people might be upset is because they do not want their homeowners insurance carrier to easily learn they have a concealed weapon permit.

Posted by TownDrunk | Report as abusive
 

All I can say is, I think it’s great that Journal News got it’s clock cleaned by that blogger who in retaliation, put all the personal info of the Journal News employees out onto the web. The icing on the cake was putting up that real estate ad of the CEO’s million dollar house, complete with interior pictures.

Posted by CF137 | Report as abusive
 

Maybe if someone who knew Adam Lanza’s tendency to violence, also knew that his mother had several guns readily available, there could have possibly been an intervention. Maybe, maybe not, but if you insist on keeping gun ownership a secret then you’ve no hope of ever preventing this sort of tragedy.

Posted by PapaDisco | Report as abusive
 

Making the location of guns public, aids burglars. Theft is a one of the major sources of illegal guns. For that reason alone it should be sealed mater for the police and FBI eyes only. Another are people buying guns for others for pay or otherwise. Hole in law allowing sale for guns without FBI pre-sale check.

Also other than felons there is no registry of people for all the categories of people on the form who cannot buy guns legally. Like the insane. For such people it is a honor system.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive
 

The reason I wear my gun concealed is it can be stolen or used against me or someone else. Gun lest should be for the FBI and police eyes only. It is a hole in the law if crooks can get to read it.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive
 

you might believe from their furor that permit holders had been accused of distributing child-porn, or manufacturing illegal drugs. if they feel so ostracized from the community by owning a handgun – why buy one?

Posted by auger | Report as abusive
 

The schizophrenia exhibited by the ‘aggrieved’ gun owners is truly mind-boggling. They proclaim at the top of their lungs their constitutional right to bear arms, but then they don’t want anyone to know they legally own a pistol? Are they ashamed? Do they worry about what the neighbors may think? I don’t buy for a second the weak rationale about aiding burglars. Here I thought just the opposite was true — knowing that a gun was in the house would deter a burglar. (I can picture the crafty thief now, carefully perusing that list studded with red dots and deciding which house he’ll break into. “Oh, he ‘s got a Beretta. I think I’ll kick in his back door at 2 a.m. and steal it from him. Easy as pie.”)

And why is it that publishing the names of those citizens exercising this particular constitutional right makes so many people so antsy? I doubt that many people would get offended if a newspaper published the names of those who had attended church recently or spoke out in public on some controversial topic. I’m not being obtuse. I know that guns are different. I also know that I view gun owners differently than I do those who don’t own them. I tend to keep my distance from the neighbors I know own a gun. One never knows what might set them off. Fair or not, that’s just the way it is in the USA. There’s an Iraq war vet living down the street who we all know owns an AR-15. He seems like a decent enough guy. But, I don’t share his politics or his views on religion. I would never invite him over for a beer. I think that may be what makes all those red dot people so nervous.

Posted by DrWhoWho | Report as abusive
 

I have to disagree with you on this. Just because the data is publicly available doesn’t mean it must be made available a click away. Providing the names and addresses so blatantly was not needed to make a point: The article could have shown how many gun owners resided in each town without exposing individual names and addresses. Consider this story: An acquaintance in another state confided in me her concern should this happen where she lives. She has a pistol, acquired in the months after 9/11 when there was much uncertainty as to its scope, depth and impact. She had a fear that there might even be an uptick in open anti-Semitism. So without telling her anti-gun husband she took a licensing course, bought the pistol, practiced at a range a few times. For the past 10 years it has been locked in a gun safe, hidden behind a pile of magazines on the top shelf of a little used bookcase in her house. She was half serious that should her husband learn of this he might leave her.

How typical is this type of gun ownership? I have no idea. But the Journal News did not likely consider that many gun owners in Westchester County fall into a similar scenario. Is the public outing of gun owners worth the havoc it might inflict in some families? Are their neighbors better off?

Posted by BenMC | Report as abusive
 

Maybe all get rid of your guns, grow up and realise that the USA is no longer the wild west and cowboys and Indians are only in the cinema! If everyone has a gun, then you are going to get idiots and people with mental health issues using them, it’s so easy to get one. They also then get sent, illegally, to other countries and used by criminals.
I know it’s a big ego trip for someone not so confident in their own self to have a gun, but that is a dangerous as putting a sign on your back saying “Shoot me”, time to wake up and realise that guns breed violence and that’s what you have got and are exporting abroad!

Posted by Skittler | Report as abusive
 

The newspaper has the right to publish any public information, and I wouldn’t even think of advocating that we legislate that right away. However, there seems to have been little to no reason for publishing the names of gun permit holders, other than to anger gun owners. Well, they succeeded, we’re angry. The newspaper employees don’t seem to like having their names and addresses made public, I wonder how they would respond to having the names of their children and where they attend school (also public information) revealed. After all, the public has a right to know.

Posted by Shamizar | Report as abusive
 

Harrasing,discounting, and restricting the second amendment rights of law abiding citizens has been a major contriuting factor in some of the worst loss of innocent human life in recent American history.
For example:
Did you know that the removing of the rights of pilots to carry a sidearm contributed to the terrorist being able to complete their mission on September 11th?
We can trust a pilot with 200 lives and a million dollar airplane but NOT a pistol? Hmm…
The real tragedy is Newtown was that there was NOT an armed person in the school at the time that could have SAVED those kids and staff.
Gun free school zones have become the preferred killing zones for nut jobs while the government ties the hands of the honest, law abiding citizen to defend their own children.
In America we close the mental hospitals and give more rights to the insane killers than to the innocent victims.That is the real problem,and one that the liberals in government have created.
Instead of addressing the common factors in these circumstances liberals only want the ability to remove your 2nd amendment rights.Legal harrasment of gun owners is a great place to start.
Now criminals and nut jobs know exactly where to steal your legal handgun thanks to the Journal News.

Posted by gotliberty | Report as abusive
 

Since gun owners use the premise that having a gun protects their home, it seems if the intruder knew in advance the owner was armed, they would select a different target. Intruders want easy targets. In and out with no problems, and there usually is no shortage of those targets.

But since a home with a gun is more likely to result in a family member being shot, then a neighbor who knows there is a gun in that home may decide not to let his children play in that home. He also is protecting his family.]

Posted by pavoter1946 | Report as abusive
 

skittler- you must admit the best way to get guns illegally to another country is to give them to the US government–ever hear of operation “Fast and Furious”? Your typical private citizen isn’t trying to make a buck, and doesn’t have enough guns to part with to do very well at it anyhow.

Admit it, you’re peddling fear, like so many who don’t understand the value of the 2nd Amendment.

Also, I’d like to know, with your “Shoot me” comment . . . does that apply to the rest of the animal kingdom? Do Porcupines wear a “shoot me” sign because of their quills? And whatever happened to the quill-less porcupines? Why didn’t they make it through natural selection?

Criminals still carry guns, and people do better with quills than without. (Self confidence doesn’t stop bullets–oh wait, maybe in the cinema . . .)

Posted by citizen033 | Report as abusive
 

Had the newspaper who published the interactive map offered a reasonable explanation for what they did , there might not be so much backlash. But in the wake of Newtown the not too thinly veiled comparison between a person with serious mental illness who slaughtered in cold blood is made by suggesting the Westchester County pistol licensees are to be just as feared. When in fact they have been weeded through perhaps the strongest background check, mental health records, and character references in the country.

If people are seriously making issue with these gun owners then they are sending the message more than clearly that they really don’t want reasonable regulations as their hype suggests, they simply want to scapegoat anyone who has anything to do with a gun.

I have no problem with public records and well defined data dumps which serve a legitimate purpose. But it’s the paper’s responsibility to explain clearly what that purpose actually is. When purporting to assess the safety of your neighborhood based upon nothing more then a highly qualified and credentialed gun permit, they fall on their own sword.

Let’s be fair and most of all realistic, Mr Schafer.

Posted by randomwalk | Report as abusive
 

This is exactly why the state I live in doesn’t allow information like this to be public information. Anyone caught trying to keep or provide a list such as this would be brought up on criminal charges, its in the state statues. I suspect the media outlet that has done this will cause the states that don’t currently have laws against this to enact laws to protect law abiding gun owners in the future. A certain amount of responsibility should be exercised when it comes to the media and public information.

In my opinion, this media organization has acted in an irresponsible manner by putting the lives of people in danger, especially those that are hiding from spouses/people that may have seriously abused them. Now their name and address is literally being put on the internet and newspaper. On top of that you have retired and active police officers on this map as well. The potential for this to explode into something that it wasn’t meant to is very real. It could indeed turnout tragic just like Sandy Hook only it might be at a home instead. If that happens, this media outlet will have blood on their hands and it makes them no different than a murderer.

Posted by lawgone | Report as abusive
 

Exactly — the data is the news! It is 2013 and there are ways to tell stories that go beyond the traditional narrative. As somebody who lives in the area covered by the map, I thank the Journal-News for publishing this public data. And thank you Jack for adding some thoughtful analysis to this matter.

Posted by MarkCardwell | Report as abusive
 

The author mistakenly assumes that those who reacted to the newspaper publication with their own release of names and addresses of the newspaper managers were acting out of the belief that there had been an “invasion of privacy” that was illegal. I don’t think I ever heard that assertion from the pro-gun people. What I saw was the “fighting of fire with fire”, that is, the use of legal, First Amendment protected rights of speech and publishing, to fight the newspaper managers, who had employed their own First Amendment rights. Sometimes all that is needed to combat someone’s exercise of free speech is to exercise your own free speech. That is what was done here. Please do not confuse the issue by claiming that the pro-gun group was guilty of hypocrisy, as they were not.

Posted by jj11123 | Report as abusive
 

“I know it’s a big ego trip for someone not so confident in their own self to have a gun, but that is a dangerous as putting a sign on your back saying “Shoot me”, time to wake up and realise that guns breed violence and that’s what you have got and are exporting abroad!”
=================
WOW….this is the DUMBEST thing Ive read all week.

1. So, tough guy, what do YOU do when 6 street thugs dont want your wallet….but instead want to beat you have to death and rape your date/wife/daughter?
Oh…thats right…you get beat half to death and whatever female your with gets raped and beaten half to death herself.
While that may be ok for you and yours, its not ok with me and mine.
One unarmed man and I might be inclined to do to him what I did to the last unarmed man who attacked me physically. But I know in this country today it doesnt work like that. Criminals come armed and/or in pairs/groups these days.
So you have fun with your “Im a tough guy, I can bounce criminal bullets and blades off my manly chest” mentality and *I* will keep carrying my 357 magnum.

2. If youre ‘guns breed violence’ ignorance were actually true then we’d have 300 MILLION guns in the hands of about 140 MILLION law abiding gun owners all killing each other.
So….whens it going to happen there, Capt Crunch? Because the FACT is that FBI crime stats show DECREASING violent crime during the SAME time frame that gun ownership and concealed carry laws have INCREASED.

Bet thats got to damaged your pride and ego…

Posted by PrivateJoker | Report as abusive
 

Hey Jackie….since we shouldnt go crazy about OUR names and addresses being tossed out to the whole world maybe you can man up here and give all of YOUR personal information too…I mean, since its evidently not a big deal to you…

Posted by PrivateJoker | Report as abusive
 

“:In my short juvenile career as a breaking-and-entering artist, we never trespassed where we knew we might be greeted by a gun barrel.”

What a surprise, that your attitude towards aw aiding Americans is so cavalier.

More important, by your logic, Gannet is responsible for painting a target on those who are UNARMED.

If some criminal harmed XYZ’s family and XYZ found out the criminal made his decision based on what he thought was a soft target from that Gannet story, can you guess what XYZ’s mood toward the Gannet publisher would be?

And since you think any info thats public is fair game, lets go for YOUR address, and lets add to that by following you and your cohorts around and post the addresses of all the gay bars you and they visit.

With any luck we can add you to the list of those carrying penicillin-resistant gonorrhea or HIV.

Oh, THOSE LISTS ARE PRIVATE?

Wouldn’t want to make it harder for them assault / infect the innocent, would we.

Posted by LesLegato | Report as abusive
 

Jack,

The mere suggestion that Journal News was simply going about their daily business with respect to the public record is insulting. The move was highly unusual; a jerk reaction, an opportunistic spitball in the direction of gun owners as the emotional temperature of the country was running high. It just seemed like a cheap shot. Freedom of information is not synonymous with obligatory publication, and neither journalistic integrity, it seems. That was irresponsible and put people at risk. “Can,” or “within my rights” doesn’t mean “ought” or “should”. We don’t live in a vacuum, there are consequences for bad judgment.

Posted by mjb0525 | Report as abusive
 

If you want to live a sociopath’s off-the-grid lifestyle, don’t go putting your name on government records.
But for RESPONSIBLE gun-owners, accepting the fact that your name is on public record is one of the things that you do.

Posted by SandersKaufman | Report as abusive
 

I have so far read quite a few of the comments here and find most if not down right funny, and some very obsessive about gun ownership. Let me get a few things out of the way first. I live in Texas, yes you read right. Texas. We do not usually hid our guns down here, at all. most times you will see gun racks in pick-ups, inside the cab, with the guns on them. you also find homes with placards big as day, with the law that allows them to shoot you if you enter uninvited, with intent to steal or harm. We don’t normally have night time break ins the criminals tend to go for a healthy life and try to break in during the day. This way you are not home when they take your things. Then of course, you may wind up with the man who will take the day off so he can catch you breaking into his house. You may wonder how this works, and we in Texas will say. Just fine, thank you very much. In due seriousness though, those who do have conceal carry, usually are not wanting you to know they have them, that would have been what caused the whole ruckus to begin with

Posted by willowsmoon | Report as abusive
 

The author is flat-out being disingenuous and intellectually dishonest. How would the author feel if this paper took tax records of jewelry purposes and posted all the addresses? Luxury car locations? Now let’s look at what they posted CONCEALED carry permits… Let’s be honest, this paper was trying to demonize gun owners, and treat them like sex-offenders, not carry out some noble purpose…

Posted by Aldo1887 | Report as abusive
 

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