The most controversial story in American journalism last week was about a suburban New York newspaper that published an interactive map disclosing the names and home addresses of the 44,000 people in their readership area who had handgun permits.
The map sparked outrage.
Some people thought the map would be used by burglars who wanted to steal handguns. Others thought it endangered homeowners who didn’t have a handgun permit and presumably were unarmed and therefore more vulnerable targets. (This discounts the fact that a New York resident can legally own a rifle or shotgun without a permit, and that there are doubtless people who own handguns without a permit.)
But mostly people seemed to be simply distressed that the names and addresses were published at all. Even other journalists were left scratching their heads.
Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, told The Associated Press that publishing names and address was “too indiscriminate.”
“My predisposition is to support the journalism,” Clark told the AP. “I want to be persuaded that this story or this practice has some higher social purpose, but I can’t find it.”
Here’s how the newspaper’s publisher defended the maps with names and addresses:
“One of our roles is to report publicly available information on timely issues, even when unpopular,” Janet Hasson, president and publisher of The Journal News Media Group, told the AP in a statement.
“We knew publication of the database (as well as the accompanying article providing context) would be controversial, but we felt sharing information about gun permits in our area was important in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings.”
I don’t think that is sufficient reason to run the information. I don’t even see how the names and addresses of people who have legally acquired handgun permits bears any relationship to the Newtown shootings.
The Journal News story that accompanied the map presupposed, in the aftermath of the school shootings, that people everywhere were somehow concerned about who owns guns around them. That never even crossed my mind after the Newtown shootings.
Knowing what we now know about Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, I would like to know if he lived near me and had access to guns, but I have no general interest in knowing how many of my neighbors legally possess guns. I do. I assume lots of my neighbors do. But I don’t fear them or their guns.
On Thursday, the day we published a story about the controversy over the map, I asked a group of local editors whether they would’ve published names and addresses of handgun-permit holders.
All of them said they would not.
“I just don’t see what purpose it would serve,” one editor said. “What does knowing that information do for me as a reader?”
One editor thought it might be meaningful to publish the number of handgun permits per ZIP code, but only on an aggregate basis and without names or addresses. When combined with other data about a ZIP code, or census tracts within a ZIP code, another editor thought such data might make an interesting story.
“There might be a story in patterns of gun ownership by geography, or demographics, or even associated with crime rates,” he said. “But you have to see all the data first to find out whether it added up to a story.”
Not one of the editors I spoke with thought it was worth the invasion of privacy to print such personal information.
In Washington state, for the record, the discussion is academic. The state requires a license for a person to carry a concealed pistol, but not for handgun ownership, and those records are available only to law enforcement. Citizens of other countries who live here also are required to have permits for any firearms they possess. No licenses or permits are required for a U.S. citizen to simply own a gun in Washington.
As to whether publishing the information would attract burglars to the homes of registered gun owners, a rigorous academic study was done after similar information was printed by the newspaper in Memphis, Tenn., in 2008.
The data showed that burglary rates dropped as much as 18 perfect in ZIP codes that had the highest gun registrations. Burglaries generally rose in areas that had the fewest guns registered.
I’m not aware of any data that exists to show whether individual homes were targeted — either with or without guns — as a result of any such story.David Zeeck: 253-597-8554 firstname.lastname@example.org