In the two weeks since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, much has been written and said about our national obsession with guns – and what do about it. But a suburban New York newspaper's unorthodox take on the issue has created a brand-new controversy over guns, rights and privacy.
Earlier this week, the White Plains Journal News ran a story with the provocative title "The Gun Owner Next Door: What You Don't Know About the Weapons in Your Neighborhood." The story, written by Dwight R. Worley, made few bones about its slant, opening with the chilling details of the shooting murder of a Katona woman last spring.
But it wasn't the story that raised eyebrows. It was the revelation that after a Freedom of Information request, "Westchester provided the names and addresses of the county’s 16,616 active permit holders" to the paper. And, even worse, its online version featured an interactive map of all the "pistol permits registered with the Westchester County Clerk's Office," along with the invitation to "zoom in and out for more information and click on a dot to see details of a permit." The Journal did also mention, in an editor's note, that writer Dwight R. Worley owns a .357 Magnum. It didn't, however, include his New York City address.
The map, thickly dotted with pins, is certainly a stunner to anyone who's opposed to guns. And of course, inevitably, an irate blogger — and gun owner — swiftly retaliated by publishing the home addresses of the newspaper's staff. He told CNN Thursday, "I felt they were using this to harass gun owners. So I harassed them back." The map has also generated a deluge of polarizing responses. On Facebook, one commenter called it "disgusting, just disgusting — and you hacks should be ashamed of what you pass for 'journalism,'" while another argued, "If someone has a right to a gun, do we not have a right to know if someone has a gun?" Well, do we? And just because a newspaper can do something, does it mean that it should?
As it turns out, the story's title resonates with me. I have family in White Plains, and two of those gun-permit holders identified on the map live right on my mother-in-law's tiny, dead-end street. In the past few days, my Facebook feed has been awash in praise for the Journal's action, some of it from people who live in the vicinity the map covers. Yet as a bleeding-heart liberal and a mother, I find I'm disgusted by the whole thing.
You think the NRA is run by a bunch of scary freaks? Me too. You believe we need considerably tighter restrictions on gun permits and a ban on assault weapons? Got your back. You say that Wayne LaPierre's idea of arming school staff is appalling? Hear, hear. But by publishing the names and addresses of gun owners, the Journal was engaging in an unnecessary act of public shaming, one that does nothing to further reasonable public discourse.
I have friends who have guns. Friends in law enforcement. Friends who hunt. Women who live alone in parts of the country vastly different from mine. And while I personally don't like guns, I begrudge none of those individuals their constitutional rights or their different views. Not everyone who owns a gun permit is Ted Nugent. Sometimes it's a lady who's coming home late at night by herself. And now, her name and address is out there for all the world to scrutinize. That is recklessness passing for journalism.
Sure, information is public. But consider how you'd feel if your local newspaper printed a map of the addresses of every registered Democrat. Or every person who's declared bankruptcy, been arrested for any reason, been involved in a lawsuit or filed for divorce. What's your opinion about crypto-religious organizations that publish information about doctors who provide abortions? In short, how'd you like it if your paper published a map with your name and address on it, for any old reason whatsoever? Do we really need more of this tit-for-tat, let's-just-dox-the-daylights-out-of-everything behavior when we're ostensibly trying to create a safer, more reasonable environment?
The Journal's editor and vice-president for news, CynDee Royle, told the L.A. Times this week, "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." It's important if you assume that everyone who holds a gun permit is a potential spree shooter and that revealing private information of ordinary citizens is in any way constructive. I want fewer guns out there. I want a safer, more peaceful country for my children. And I don't believe that invading anybody's privacy has anything to do with making that happen.