By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

How public should public gun records be?

Screen Shot 2012-12-27 at 10.54.07 AMThere is public information, and there is public information.

If someone makes publicly available data about sex offenders more readily accessible, that might help protect children. But it could also make it more difficult for offenders who have finished paying their debt to society to get on with their lives — theoretically increasing the risk that they will reoffend.

If the names and addresses of people who signed a petition in opposition to same-sex marriage are posted online, it may expose the tactics of anti-marriage activists who fooled people into thinking they were signing something else. But it could also expose sincere gay-marriage opponents to ridicule or worse for simply exercising their democratic rights.

It’s a discussion I’ve had with my students on several occasions, and now the dilemma has spread to guns. The Journal News, a Gannett paper that covers the affluent suburbs of Westchester County, N.Y., and beyond, has put together a map showing the names and addresses of people who hold permits for handguns, which it obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

“About 44,000 people in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam — one out of every 23 adults — are licensed to own a handgun,” writes Dwight R. Worley of The Journal News.

As with the examples I cited up top, this is public information. The Journal News has every legal right to do this. But it has prompted an outcry from gun owners and others who say the information ought to be private. One critic has responded by posting the names, home addresses and personal information of every Journal News employee he can find, reports Patrick Clark of The New York Observer.

Greg Mitchell has a detailed report at The Nation, and J. David Goodman recaps the story at The New York Times.

Personally, I’m not sure what to make of this. I’ve been trying to think of a journalistic or social good that has been accomplished by publishing this, and I’m having a hard time thinking of one. I guess if I had a neighbor who behaved erratically, I’d want to know if he might have a legally obtained gun. But that seems like a stretch.

Before The Journal News put together its map, the information fell into a gray area — public, yes, but not easily accessible. Is there a reason for some types of information to be public but also hard to get? Is there anything we can or should do about that in the age of the Internet?

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  1. I guess my first question with this kind of thing is always, “Is it news?” Since the information is already publicly available (albeit not in a neato interactive map), it doesn’t pass my “news” test. Also, if I had a nutty neighbor, I’d be likely to check him out on my own first and not wait for the newspaper to publish information about him.

  2. tobe berkovitz

    I see this as showboating by The Journal News.

  3. Jurgen Kedesdy

    You correctly emphasize that there are two issues here: 1) Should gun ownership be public information? and 2) Is it appropriate for news agencies to publish it? To the first question: I don’t see how this can be answered with anything other than a resounding “Yes”! Consider the following anecdote. I recently had my deck rebuilt. I had to post information, at my expense, in the town newspaper, notify all neighbors by mail, and attend a town meeting to defend my plan. I assume this is to minimize the risk to my neighbors’ aesthetic sensibilities. In any case, I was happy enough to do all this; after all, as members of a community, we have an obligation to each other. As far as firearms are concerned, I would apply the same rules as were applied to my deck: post each purchase in the local newspaper and notify your neighbors. Maybe skip the town meeting. Second, is it appropriate for gun owners to be identified, as they were in The Journal News? Here the burden of proof should be, in my opinion, clearly on the other foot. I can think of no compelling reason not to publish this information. I, for one, would find it very useful to learn that my neighbor is stocking up on AK-15s.

  4. Jeremy Marin

    I don’t need to tell you that sometimes pictures are far more powerful. To simply state that ‘One out of every 23 people in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam has a gun license,” can be understood in many ways. I think many people would simply brush it off as a high concentration of people in specific neighborhoods (ie, “Not my neighborhood!”) have handgun licenses.

    Marking the registered address of each license-holder shows proximity that raw numbers cannot. It shows the licenses are held in each neighborhood (in YOUR neighborhood), and not simply by the ubiquitous “them.”

    The next logical question (to me) is whether they could have placed the dots but not listed the names and addresses publicly. My assumption is that the Journal would have been accused of witholding information, possibly using inaccurate information, etc. Despite that, I don’t think it is responsible to list the addresses of officers, judges, etc., especially since some are retired.

    Showmanship? Yes, but I think the map brings the message that guns are in all neighborhoods home in a way that listing data as text probably could not.

  5. I don’t believe publishing the map and names & addresses of permit holders is newsworthy. It doesn’t indicate whether the permit holder currently has a firearm, the number of such weapons, and whether we’re talking about target pistols or automatic rifles. Public information or not, it’s intrusive. Next would be alerting folks about whether their neighbors have wet bars, so that potential DUIs could be averted.

  6. I’d be more comfortable with asking the press to hold back on stories like this one if the NRA hadn’t succeeded in making this happen:

    If a government held hostage to deadly nuts can’t put together the needed electronic database, maybe it’s up to the press.

  7. Thoughts concerning whether this is useful information.

    1 – It will let those seeking to acquire an illegal weapon know exactly where to go shopping, so to speak. Stake out someplace, make note of when the house is unoccupied, go in and grab a perfectly legal and possibly harmless firearm and turn it into an instrument for violent crime.

    2 – Criminals not seeking firearms, but who are seeking to identify those places where they are less likely to be shot, can concentrate on those homes identified as NOT having firearms.

    Personally, I see little good (except for criminals) coming from publishing such information.

  8. Hi, Dan. We published gun permits about 20 years ago. Did it weekly as I recall. Here is what I wrote about it yesterday.

  9. Mike Rice

    … as if those who have been outed are guilty of something. What?

  10. I’m very excited about improving gun controls, but for me this should be about laws and not individual addresses. The paper, perhaps, wanted to do something interesting with their map. I think the visual *does* have a value- why are so many of those permits concentrated in those areas? But I think they could have made such a map without publishing the individual addresses.

    As for publishing the addresses of the journalists, there doesn’t seem to be any value to that.

    In both cases, and in most of the cases you referenced, my response is that just because you have a right to do something doesn’t mean you’re compelled to exercise it.

    Maybe everyone should stop doxxing each other and focus on the issue, and that comes back to laws.

  11. I am a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, but also of public information. The criteria isn’t if it is ‘newsworthy’, but is it informational? Informative? I bet that a lot of New York progressives had stereotyped gun owners as drooling rednecks, not their own neighbors. They may have to re-think the tenor of their abuse.

    We had a public official in Eastham dismissed when Tom Lang first thought of publishing public documents, i.e., the marriage petition – it was implied that he would fail to serve gay members of the community becasue he signed the petition. But while this was a slander of a good person, I didn’t say we shouldn’t publish public records.

    The only problem was that while his motive was to be allowed to vote on the matter, the signature was deemed a hate crime. The raw public record doesn’t provide information on motivation. Does this gun registrant just want to go deer shooting annually, or does he have enough AK-47’s to outfit a Colunbian drug cartel? That is where news reporting could be helpful – actually finding out what the story is behind the public record.

  12. Mike Benedict

    Overlooked in all of this is the opportunity for news groups to mine and make sense of the countless databases out there. This seems a somewhat unrefined example, but making these kind of data available in a useful and searchable way would be an excellent strike back at the search engines that commoditize newsgathering.

  13. You’re looking for a public service provided by this information? How about this one: I have no interest in my young children playing in a house that has a gun in it, because guns kept in the home are far more likely to injure or kill a household member than an intruder. While my young children can play with the kids next door, I can tell them they are not allowed to go in their house. Public safety.

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