Two fundamental rights many Americans hold dear – the right to own firearms and the right to access public information – have collided in the decision by a New York-area newspaper to publish the names and addresses of people licensed to own handguns.
The Gannett-owned Journal News, headquartered in White Plains, N.Y., used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain information on some 44,000 registered handgun owners in Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam Counties, just north of New York City. It then published that information online over the weekend using Google Maps to show exactly where those gun owners live.
In the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting, gun ownership is a touchy subject – politically and socially – and the decision by The Journal News to obtain and publish such information has drawn sharp and critical response.
In a blog post headlined “Intimidation,” Ben Shapiro at Breitbart.com warned that “publishing the names and addresses of gun owners makes them more vulnerable to robbery when they aren’t at home, since criminals will know where the guns are.”
Other critics have suggested that the published information also points to the addresses that don’t have registered handguns – perhaps making them more of a target for armed criminals. “It reveals to criminals which homes *are not* protected by a firearm,” tweeted conservative talk-show host Tammy Bruce.
Many commenters on Facebook and other social media weighed in, some publicizing the names and home addresses of Journal News editors and reporters.
“This is CRAZY!!” one reader wrote on the newspaper’s website. “Why in the world would you post every licensed gun owner information?? What do you hope to accomplish by doing this. This is the type of thing you do for sex offenders not law abiding gun owners. What next? Should I hang a flag outside my house that says I own a gun? I am canceling my subscription with your paper today!!!”
“This is precisely why gun owners reject the registration of rifles and shotguns and quite frankly handguns,” wrote another. “First it's Registration and Intimidation. Then it's Confiscation, or Incarceration & Genocide soon follows. Beware. It's the norm in world history and not an anomaly! This is how it starts!”
One woman wrote, "I'd rather have a gun owner as my neighbor then a journalist, one is far more responsible than the other."
The newspaper said it received hundreds of phone calls “claiming publication of the database put their safety at risk or violated their privacy.”
“Others claimed publication was illegal,” the newspaper reported on Christmas Day, a few days after the initial story and map were published. “Many of the callers were vitriolic and some threatened members of the newspaper staff.”
Dave Triglianos, a certified gun instructor who owns an AR-15 rifle, told the newspaper that information about his firearms “should be absolutely private.”
“Why do my neighbors need to know that?” he asked. “I am not a threat to my neighbors. I don’t pose a physical threat to anyone.”
On the other hand, said John Thompson, “I would love to know if someone next to me had guns.”
“It makes me safer to know so I can deal with that,” Mr. Thompson, who works for a YMCA group that counsels youths against gun violence, told The Journal News. “I might not choose to live there.”
Strong reaction did not come as a surprise to the publication’s editors and business executives.
“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,” CynDee Royle, editor and vice president for news, said in a statement.
“People are concerned about who owns guns and how many of them there are in their neighborhoods,” Ms. Royle said. “Our Freedom of Information request also sought specifics on how many and what types of weapons people owned. That portion of the request was denied.”
The newspaper felt obliged to add this “editor’s note” to the original story: “Journal News reporter Dwight R. Worley owns a Smith & Wesson 686 .357 Magnum and has had a residence permit in New York City for that weapon since February 2011.”