Publishing holders of gun permits: Does it make the community safer?

“The map indicates the addresses of all pistol permit holders in Westchester and Rockland counties. Each dot represents an individual permit holder licensed to own a handgun — a pistol or revolver. The data does not include owners of long guns — rifles or shotguns — which can be purchased without a permit. Being included in this map does not mean the individual at a specific location owns a weapon, just that they are licensed to do so.”  

And with that, the Journal News in Westchester County, N.Y., started a conversation. Of sorts.

“WHITE PLAINS — Thousands of people, many from outside Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties, have taken to their computers and phones in rage after The Journal News posted an online database of local gun-permit holders.”

Nearly 20 years ago, the News & Record began publishing weekly lists of people who had gotten gun permits. We didn’t do it because of any political agenda. It was before the great decline. Newspaper advertising was robust, which meant that we had gobs of space to fill. We already published marriages, divorces, births and land transfers. Gun permits were public records — still are — what’s one more list that people might be interested in?

We discovered quickly what one more list would evoke. We heard, all right. We got letters and we got calls. This was before social media and before email was widely used so we actually got to talk with the people who were upset with us. Their complaints then are the same as they are now.

* “Criminals will know which houses to break into to steal the guns.”

* “Criminals will know which houses to break into because there is no one there with guns.”

* “You’re making it look as if I’m a criminal. If my house is robbed, I’m coming for you.”

Our explanation was similar to the Journal News.’ “We knew publication of the database would be controversial, but we felt sharing as much information as we could about gun ownership in our area was important in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings,’ said CynDee Royle, editor and vice president/news. ‘People are concerned about who owns guns and how many of them there are in their neighborhoods.'”

Our thinking, too, was that births, marriages and divorces were intimate personal information that got nary a peep. That because the gun permit list was new to people, we’d get a brief flurry of complaints, which would die down. And they did.

I don’t remember how long we published the information. (I wasn’t the editor then.) As I recall, we stopped because we began having some space constraints, and the permit list was an easy one to drop because it was so controversial.

I say all that to say this: I wouldn’t do it again. It was never a question of “could we” publish. But sometimes, just because you can publish doesn’t mean you should. While the information is public, I think it is a privacy violation. Not in any legal sense, but in a practical sense. As I think about it, I don’t see any significant public service purpose in telling the community who has a gun permit. It doesn’t say they have a weapon. It doesn’t say they may go off and shoot someone. But the implications are there.

And it doesn’t make the community any safer.

6 thoughts on “Publishing holders of gun permits: Does it make the community safer?

  1. I was surprised to see the note on one of the JN stories about the reporter being a permit holder; this struck me as the sort of project that springs from the “firearm ownership is inherently sinister” attitude that many journalists seem to have.

  2. Your decision is reasonable. I wonder, however, about the critics of this type of reporting on what’s already a public record:

    “You’re making it look as if I’m a criminal.” How so? Do you feel the same way if the newspaper mentions that you’ve applied for a marriage license?

    ”Criminals will know which houses to break into to steal the guns.” Not the opposite? I thought that was the point of owning a gun in the first place.

    It seems to me that they are simply uncomfortable with this being public knowledge. State employees have made similar complaints when their salaries are included in newspapers databases.

    • However, in the case of the more recent report, can you imagine a newspaper running an enterprise piece listing people who got married and their home addresses, along with the heavyhanded “The People Have A Right To Know” message that strongly implies the people being spotlighted are doing something wrong?

      (As for the listings, I think the concern has more to do with their houses being targeted when they’re not home. Similar to the reason the newspaper I used to work at stopped running the names and addresses where incidents took place: it amounted to saying “Hey, John Smith at 123 Evergreen Terrace is a coin collector, and guess what? He happens to have a busted garage door at the moment.”)

      • Is there any data to back up the claim that publishing this information leads to more break-ins at homes when residents are not home? Couldn’t criminals look up the original public records if that’s their modus operandi? It would be interesting to go back and look a year from now to see if those concerns were legitimate.

        Similarly, state employees who have objected to having salaries published in newspaper databases have raised issues such as identity theft. Again, I wonder whether there’s any evidence to support that claim.

  3. Pingback: New York Paper publishes List telling Criminals Easiest Homes to Rob | Politisite

  4. Many journalist are a bunch of little sissy’s that get their shorts all twisted when they are praying on people because they can, they have the media to get it out there, which is a crying shame. You have no privacy anymore between the media up everyone’s buttholes and big brother watching trying to take away our 2nd amendment, damn before you know it there will be marshal law and china and nato will be telling us what to do. So N.R.A keep up the good work we are Americans we have the right to protect ourselves and our families and property. The problem here is they need to go after the M.D.’s who prescribe the mind sedative drugs for those who have emotional issues and get them off the drugs and into counseling as in -patience. The good person who owns weapons is not the problem. We all know what the problem is, it’s just we are in an era where we cannot face our issues anymore we are losing grip on ourselves and our country. It’s just a matter of time before we will be a 3rd world country. Rome collapsed,Russia collapsed and so can we! JUST A VERY CONCERNED “TAX PAYING” AMERICAN.

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