Let’s not go crazy over publishing gun lists
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.
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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