Does your neighbor pack heat? How common are firearms in your community? Especially after massacres like last month’s Newtown shootings, those are legitimate questions — ones that a suburban newspaper in New York State tried to answer with an online map of pistol permit-holders in two counties that has provoked a national outcry. Gun owners have accused the Journal News of White Plains of invading their privacy and tarring law-abiding gun owners with a kind of virtual scarlet letter. In the process, some gun advocates fear, the paper has created a roadmap for thieves seeking to steal weapons. The backlash has become so intense the newspaper recently posted armed guards at its office.
The most reasonable critique of the newspaper is that its map doesn’t present a complete picture of the extent of gun ownership in Westchester and Rockland counties. After all, a permit holder might own multiple pistols, or none at all. The map doesn’t include rifles or shotguns, which don’t require permits in New York, and doesn’t account for illegally held weapons.
But just because the Journal News’s report could have been done differently doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have been done at all. The newspaper has acted within its journalistic mission. New York’s pistol permits are a public record. Many residents would undoubtedly like to know if they are living next to a gun owner, but lack the time to file a public record request. The more broadly the names of permit holders are known, the more likely someone is to notice if a dangerous individual was mistakenly granted one. The presence of guns in a home is also a public health risk factor that individual parents, for instance, may wish to weigh; while many gun owners sincerely believe themselves to be protecting themselves and their families, studies show a correlation between gun ownership and death by gun.
The objection of gun owners, aside from the concern that they are being stigmatized, is that the Journal News’s map may lead thieves to their doorstep. That fear seems overblown; one can just as easily imagine criminals using the information to avoid armed homeowners. Regardless, all public information, from real estate sales to entries in the phone book, carries with it some theoretical security risk.
After the Newtown carnage, politicians promised to take a fresh look at overdue gun control measures. Laws certainly need to change. But so does the exaggerated deference increasingly demanded by gun owners. Like automobile registrations, real estate deeds, corporation papers, or marital records, gun permits are legal arrangements that should be subject to basic public scrutiny. The Journal News was not only acting within its proper journalistic role, telling a story that needed to be told, but helping to disseminate public information. The records were out there, for anyone who’s curious. And that’s as it should be.