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.