In America, Privacy Is Already Shot

As the debate over a national gun registry rages in Congress, most Americans don't realize how much of their personal information is public.


Senate negotiations over gun legislation have been stalled by a seemingly insignificant item: whether records should be kept for private sales of guns. What's remarkable is not that Congress is tussling at all over something as sensible as simple background checks for gun buyers, something supported by a wide majority of Americans, including gun owners. It's that people seem unaware that so much of their private life is already public and often, published.

Gun owner advocates worry that the keeping of records of private gun sales would lead to some sort of national registry of gun owners—something proponents of the background checks deny. But the concern is real; anytime anyone in the Internet age compiles information, there's a chance it might end up on some sort of publicly available list. It's unlikely the federal government would do it, but the appropriately named website The Smoking Gun might. And yet, if private gun sales are not recorded, how can police track the history of a gun used in a crime? That's also an extremely valid concern.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

But Americans have stood by and allowed all sorts of information about their lives and transactions to be not only compiled, but published. Many people are uncomfortable telling others how much they paid for their home, seeing it as a private household budget matter. But such information is easily available. In the days of low technology, you had to go down to City Hall to look up real estate transactions. Now, the info is gettable by the click of a mouse, and if you don't want to do that, the Washington Post runs a list of the sales once a week—complete with the full names of buyers and sellers.

Call up certain websites and you'll be inundated with ads telling you how to check if someone has a criminal background, how old someone is, or even if some classmate has been "looking" for you. People have always been nosy, but the Internet has been an awful enabler. In Mad Men, when the office gets a brand-new (and small aircraft-sized copier), one of the secretaries is humiliated when her coworkers photocopy her driver's license and post it on the bulletin board, proving that the woman is scandalously in her 30s. The bit was a brilliant look back to the '60s, because it was a reminder of how even that primitive technology could be used for public embarrassment (not to mention the fact that it was considered embarrassing then for a woman to be in her 30s and unmarried). The Internet has taken that capacity and multiplied it by a million.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Obama's Gun Control Proposals Be Enacted?]

A lot of people want to know if their neighbors have guns, but people want to know a lot of things that may or may not be any of their business. The salaries of public employees, including low-level congressional staffers, are public. Is that any reason to publish them? The implication is that there's something venal about paying people who do government work. Tragically, a teacher in California committed suicide a couple of years ago after his "teacher rating" published in the Los Angeles Times, a rating based on the test performance of is students. What was the point of publishing something like that?

The gun ownership issue is trickier. First, law enforcement indeed needs to be able to track the movement of guns when they are used in a crime, and that's pretty hard to do without sales records. And having a weapon and keeping it a secret gives the owner a certain advantage, but is also a bit like carrying a concealed weapon, which is illegal in some jurisdictions. Congress should not let more important gun legislation fall because of this detail. But Americans should not delude themselves that much of their private lives are already very public.

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