“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.”
“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.