When, in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn. mass shooting, the Gannett-owned Journal-News published an interactive map on its web site showing the names addresses of those holding gun permits in the two counties it covers, it got a lot of attention.
The suburban New York paper said it was acting in the interests of the public's right to know. Some may call this brave, even ground-breaking journalism worthy of a Pulitzer Prize. Others, me included, see it as little more than a stunt designed to sell papers and drive traffic to its website.
It's also a gross invasion of privacy. By way of full disclosure, the Journal-News (under a different name) was the paper I grew up reading. I may have friends and family members on the list. Nevertheless, while the matter of who has a gun permit is public record in New York state, it is not at all clear that it is information deserving of broad dissemination.
Whether the paper was acting to fulfill the legitimate interests of the public or even to appease the curious, it went too far. There are lots of things that could be considered in the public interest that no paper would ever dream of publishing, like a map showing the names and address of every county resident convicted of driving while intoxicated. Or whose home was in foreclosure. Or who had once filed for any kind of bankruptcy. Or who had been arrested for prostitution or for solicitation of a prostitute. Or who had a child living in the home with special needs who received publicly-funded services.
One can make a compelling argument that the public has a right to know all these things, as they may affect the taxes we pay, personal safety, or the value of our homes—and all of which have a more direct impact on the lives of others than whether one or more persons living nearby has a gun permit. In that environment it is not too far a leap to publish things appealing merely to prurient interests, like where the women who have had abortions live or where doctors who have been sued for malpractice reside. Others might find useful maps to the homes of hedge fund executives—of which there are many in the area served by the Journal-News—or people who did not vote in the last election. Technology makes all that possible, with the potential for compelling copy theoretically endless.
There is a profound difference between what people, by law, have the right to know and what people should know. How many women on the list identified as holding gun permits are, for example, seniors living alone who keep a weapon for self-protection? Or are hiding from an abusive spouse or boyfriend and who are potentially endangered by the paper's publication of their address? Or are active or retired police officials who have something to fear from criminals holding a grudge?
There are those who have suggested, as the Journal-News did, that the public needs to know more about who owns guns and who holds gun permits. This is a matter for the legislature to address, not the editor of a suburban newspaper—at least not in this manner. Those who say the public at large has the right to know who owns a gun or has a gun permit and where they live are obligated to explain why and to what end. Time and again, after almost every mass shooting like the one in Newtown we discover the perpetrator had violated many of the so-called gun control statutes already on the books, including those governing the kinds of weapons that can be owned, those involving so-called "gun free zones" and, most importantly just who can own a gun or a gun permit in the first place.
There are a lot of people who can claim to be harmed by what the Journal-News has done. The gun owners, certainly, who may now be targeted for public action by gun-control supporters is one group. Those who did not make the list may be another, the paper have thoughtlessly advertized to the criminal community just who in Westchester's many affluent neighborhoods like Rye and Larchmont and Bedford and Chappaqua, where the Clinton's formally reside, are not on record as owning a firearm. Thanks to the Journal-News, those folks can sleep a little less soundly and a little less safely for the immediate future.