Just because something is on the public record in a courthouse somewhere does not mean there is any need or compelling reason to publish it, even if it is perfectly legal to do so.
That is my general position on the situation in which the Journal News newspaper of White Plains, New York, a New York city suburb, is publishing the names and addresses of gun permit holders in what I guess is its readership area. It has already made one publication and plans to do more.
It is doing so ostensibly in reaction to the school shooting in Sandy Hook, Conn., where a gunman mowed down 20 first graders with a semi-automatic rifle reportedly registered to the shooter’s mother, who was also killed, along with school staff members.
I guess it’s kind of like the idea of publishing the names of known sex offenders. I think this is routinely done online by some law enforcement agencies in various jurisdictions for the benefit of parents and other members of the public.
Some news outlets have published the names of johns (customers) in connection with prostitution arrests. In that case the idea is to deter prostitution by shaming the clients.
In the White Plains case gun owners have complained that the publication is a violation of their privacy, makes them more vulnerable to gun theft by pointing out where they live, and makes it easier for criminals to locate places where they would be less likely to face armed but potential victims.
The privacy argument is not compelling to me since it is public record, although one might question the whole idea of permits.
But singling people out and publishing their names and addresses when they have not done anything wrong but with the clear implication that somehow they are a danger seems questionable if not wrong to me.
Does the action of publishing the names of gun permit holders serve a useful purpose? Is it worth the unwanted exposure of people who have not even been accused of breaking a law? And will it really make anyone any safer? The answer to me to all those questions is no.
I understand there is a movement afoot in possibly more than one jurisdiction to pass laws that would make gun ownership confidential. Now that would be wrong. We don’t need more government secrets. If there is a legitimate purpose for gun permits then the public has a right and an interest to know who holds them.
The argument that the paper should not publish the names of gun permit owners because of the danger such action poses may be not much more logical than the argument that the names should be published. On the one hand publishing the names tells criminals where to look or where to avoid but they could also obtain that information by consulting public records (although I guess that would be more time consuming and the act of doing so might lead to their own identity). On the other hand, publishing names and addresses already listed for anyone to see (albeit making it more easy) does not seem such a threat. But in the end, I fail to see a compelling reason or practical purpose in publishing the names. I doubt that doing so will make it less likely that some nut case in the future will not get a hold of a gun and shoot people. The publication will not identify mentally deranged people likely to get a hold of guns or people with criminal intent.
By reading one letter to the editor in the Journal News I got the impression that the publication of names may be seen as a weapon against the right of gun ownership. That letter was praising the publication. I don’t know what the actual motivation was, though, I admit. It could have been public interest, a move against gun ownership, or even something to gain more readership. There is freedom of the press and I fully support that. Responsibility should come along with it.
(I have not seen the actual publication of names. And I do not know if it includes a list of all types of weapons or just some or what the gun permit laws in New York State actually require.)
As a kind of sidebar to all of this, some of those opposed to the publication of the names turned the tables by listing the names and addresses of some newspaper staffers online.
I kind of know how it feels to have the tables turned:
Many long years ago when I worked as a newspaper reporter/photographer my editor sent me out to a traffic stop on the interstate. The local cops had stopped some guys for suspicion of drugs. The local cops wanted publicity so they called the paper. I went out there. And one of the suspects asked a cop if he could see my identification. The cop agreed and told me to present it to the guy. Not knowing what to do, I showed him my driver’s license, the only ID I had. I felt strange about this. To my memory no arrest was made. Nothing, as I recall, was published. And thankfully I never heard from the suspect.