Brian Sandford: When will we publish gun owner database? Never
March 3, 2013
Some of you might have heard about the uproar surrounding last year’s decision by The Journal News of Westchester, N.Y., to publish the names and addresses of the area’s gun-permit holders.
The paper’s leadership decided to publish that information in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school shootings. The publisher defended the decision, saying one of the newspaper’s roles is to report publicly available information on timely issues, even when the coverage is unpopular.
I don’t disagree with that mission statement, but more on that later. In the meantime, the issue keeps cropping up nationwide. Just in the past week, ArkansasBusiness.com of Little Rock posted a link to Arkansas’ concealed-carry permit list, then quickly removed it and wrote an apology.
Things didn’t go as smoothly at the Cherokee Scout, a small newspaper serving Murphy, N.C., and its surrounding area. The editor there on Feb. 19 requested records showing which Cherokee County residents had applied for or received concealed-carry permits, only to be told “no” by the county sheriff (a response that, by letter of the law, is illegal). The editor made the request again.
When readers learned of the request, they were furious. The editor and publisher co-wrote a letter shortly thereafter describing a “near-hysterical” reaction, as well as numerous threats they’d received. A subsequent note to readers was more conciliatory, and the editor resigned days later. A former colleague who’s now a copy editor at The Journal News described observing a similar reader reaction there.
Threats are never OK, but the reaction highlights Americans’ deeply held convictions about gun ownership, as well as privacy.
It also raises a big question: When should newspapers publish public records, and which ones?
You’ll never see a list of gun owners in the Nevada Appeal for a simple reason: There’s no public benefit. Put another way, it’s nobody’s business.
We use public records to report on issues both large and small, governmental and crime-related. If someone is on trial, we check his/her background. We similarly check on people who come here with grand ideas for a business, those who run for public office, and how much the federal government is spending managing Nevada’s lands.
Without those records, we can’t fill our vitally important watchdog role. I’ll write more about that role next week to coincide with the beginning of Sunshine Week, a national initiative March 10-16 aimed at highlighting the importance of open government and freedom of information.
In short, we use public records responsibly to inform our readers. We don’t misuse them. That’s a promise.
• Editor Brian Sandford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.