The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut left over twenty people dead, the majority of them young children. The nation responded with shock, anger, and a renewed controversial debate on gun control. Schools sought to increase their security and clamp down on gun-related threats. Others rushed to get gun permits as the rhetoric over banning certain types of guns ramped up. One response to the tragedy might have gone a little too far and has added fuel to the fire of the growing disputes over national gun legislation.
In the aftermath of the shootings, one suburban New York newspaper, The Journal News, decided to alert their readership to the prevalence of gun ownership in their own communities. The newspaper published online interactive maps of two counties, Rockland and Westchester, disclosing the names and addresses of individuals who have received handgun permits. Not only did the map reveal the personal information of over 33,000 residents, but it also was published along with an article on December 24, 2012 entitled, “The Gun Owner Next Door: What You Don’t Know About the Weapons in Your Neighborhood” detailing concerns over who has access to guns.
This move by The Journal News has generated a large controversy in itself. Gun owners in the area responded with obvious shock and anger and called the map a violation of their privacy. Criticisms of the map also poured in from gun owners in all parts of the nation. In fact, employees at The Journal News have been subject to harassment and death threats. The publication hired armed guards to escort employees to their cars. Some workers not directly related to the article have been staying in hotels out of fear for being harassed at home.
In justification of the decision to publish the gun map, The Journals News stated that it wanted people to be more aware of the how common guns are in their neighborhoods and to help parents make better decisions when it comes to the safety of their children. The newspaper continues to defend the rights of individuals to be cognizant of whether or not people around them own guns and keep them in their residences. This way people can make better informed decisions about where to live. The maps provide a visual way for people to understand the pervasiveness of gun ownership in just two counties in the nation.
On one hand, what The Journals News did was not technically illegal or a violation of the gun owner’s privacy. New York had already passed an open records act that states that the names and addresses of handgun permit holders will be a matter of public record. All The Journal News had to do was file a request under the Freedom of Information Law and obtain the names, addresses, and weapon type under each permit. In the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, this is exactly what they did and choose to present the information in map form. Before the publication of the map online, anyone could have accessed that same information according to New York state law.
Still, publication of the map online has drawn disapproval from every corner with claims that this disclosure only harms law-abiding gun owners. Those gun owners in the New York say that it has left them and their families feeling vulnerable to harassment, potential breaks-ins, and other crimes. In fact, thieves broke into one house in Westchester County after being identified on The Journal News’s map. The burglars apparently targeted the man’s gun safe while the owner was away. However, it is not known whether the thieves used the map to target the house. Law enforcement officials in the area have also expressed concerns over their own safety since prison guards have been threatened by inmates who say they know where the guards live thanks to the map.
Criticism of the gun map has not only come from gun owners but also from other journalists around the country. These journalists are questioning whether The Journal News should have provided more context to go along with the map. They point out that just because public information has become more readily available in recent years, that does not mean that the data should be published in raw form. Other criticisms remain over whether the map has any journalistic value high enough to justify the privacy concerns of residents. Ultimately, their criticism is that The Journal News did not do enough with the information.
Those in favor of the map claim that the paper had every right to publish the names and addresses of gun owners based on the First Amendment. People have a right to know whether their neighbors own guns, and the map did convey the powerful message that gun permit holders are all over the place. The Journal News itself claims that their readers are interested in knowing about guns in their neighborhoods, and the reactions of the gun owners only shows what tactics they will resort to when gun rights are threatened. Mary Dolan, features editor for The Journal News, defended the map saying that it sparked a conversation that needed to happen in this country.
Two articles (one pro and one con) about the Journal News publishing a map of gun permit owners:
In a reaction to the published maps, the New York state legislature passed a law that gives gun permit holders the option to keep their information out of the public record. Just recently The Journal News announced it was taking down the online maps, although the paper still defends its initial decision to publish them. In announcing the removal of the gun permit map, Journal News publisher Janet Hasson wrote on January 18, 2013 in a letter published on the Journal News site:
Today, The Journal News has removed the permit data from LoHud.com. Our decision to do so is not a concession to critics that no value was served by the posting of the map in the first place. On the contrary, we’ve heard from too many grateful community members to consider our decision to post information contained in the public record to have been a mistake. Nor is our decision made because we were intimidated by those who threatened the safety of our staffers. We know our business is a controversial one, and we do not cower.
But the database has been public for 27 days, and we believe those who wanted to view it have done so already. As well, with the passage of time, the data will become outdated and inaccurate.
The episode serves as a reminder that gun control laws, the rights of guns owners, and the controversies surrounding them are hotly debated subjects in America and are not likely to go away as well as triggering discussion about publishing personal information such as names and addresses, even if the data is public information.