By Emily Bazelon
Worrying over the Newtown shooting, a friend of mine mentioned a piece of advice she'd gotten from a school official: Before your kid goes to another child's house, ask the parents whether they own a gun, and whether it's locked up. She'd been counseled to ask the question years ago, but never had. It just seemed too invasive and awkward.
I've been thinking about that unasked question in the wake of the decision by the Journal News, a New York suburban paper, to publish a map showing every handgun permit holder, by name and address, across the two counties of Westchester and Rockland. The story sparked outrage from readers, conservatives and a local state senator; they called the newspaper feature a "violation of privacy," a "scarlet letter," and "intimidation." Poynter's Al Tompkins also objected: "Just because information is public does not make it newsworthy," he wrote. "People own guns for a wide range of law-abiding reasons. If you are not breaking the law, there is no compelling reason to publish the data."
Why is it legal to publish these kinds of gun records, and should it be? There's no real question that New York law allowed the Journal News to publish these records. The state has an open records act that says the name and address of handgun permit holders "shall be a public record." That "shall" does not leave room for government officials to refuse to hand this information over, as Putnam, a third county covered by the Journal News, is doing. The paper also has a First Amendment right to publish the gun data. The Putnam county clerk says he's refusing to put gun owners "in harm's way," but if he is challenged in court, he will surely lose.
States can choose otherwise. On the Gannett blog, commenter Jim Hopkins says that he published a story in the Gannett paper in Boise, Idaho, in the mid 1990s, based on gun data he got through the state's open-records law, and that in response, Idaho lawmakers changed the law to allow people with concealed carry permits to keep their records secret. On Poynter, Julie Moos has a good roundup of other examples of news organizations taking this step. For the newspapers, the justification is that readers "are understandably interested to know about guns in their neighborhoods," as the Journal News said in a statement. But of course, people are interested in knowing all kinds of things. So is the only line to draw here based on what's legal, plus a news organization's editorial judgment?
I called William Newman of the ACLU of Western Massachusetts, who represented Slate and me in a successful open records act challenge, to puzzle this through. Why should certain personal information, like food stamp or unemployment insurance applications, or tax returns, remain private as federal law and some state laws mostly provide while gun permit records are public? Newman said the law reflects a societal consensus about when privacy outweighs the public's interest in transparency, and when it's the other way around. "Gun permits are like property appraisals, or construction permits, or parade permits. People could object to making these records available on privacy grounds, too," Newman said. "But because guns are what they are, there is a greater need to know."