Guns and public records


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A New York newspaper created news itself last week when it published the names and addresses of those licensed to carry hand guns in two counties in the Albany area in an interactive map on its website.

The Journal News defended the bold and controversial decision, which was influenced by the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School not far away in Newtown, Conn. Janet Hasson, president and publisher of the Journal News Media Group, said, "New York residents have the right to own guns with a permit and they also have a right to access public information."

Others who have defended the newspaper reinforced her point: the First Amendment - which includes freedom of speech - is just as important as the Second Amendment - the right to bear arms.

That's where the simplicity ends, of course.

The many outraged people - gun owners and otherwise - said publicizing the names and addresses of law-abiding citizens who happen to have permits to carry guns puts them in the same category as registered sex offenders. They claim the map creates a "lighted pathway" for criminals looking to steal weapons. They said it causes undue harm to people who have guns for protection or work, such as judges and police officers, including undercover officers. It will drive gun owners to the black markets, others said, creating less public information about, and the ability to track, gun ownership. And, to some, it suggests the average citizen who owns a gun is the next Adam Lanza.

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While we're not prepared at The News-Item to embark on a similar project involving hand-gun permits, I many times have had to defend our right to publish public records that may seem too personal or sensitive. Publication of property transfers, marriage records, certainly divorce records and even Lottery winnings earn us regular criticism.

Our argument, however, is always the same: It's public information, and that same information is available to anyone - whether or not we publish it.

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Interestingly, one of the reactions on the Journal News project came from Al Tompkins, a faculty member at the nonprofit Poynter Institute for journalism. He criticized the database, saying in an e-mail published on Poynter.org, "Publishing gun owners' names makes them targets for theft or public ridicule."

But a story by Matt Pearce at the Los Angeles Times detailed a study by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that examined the aftermath of a similar gun-ownership data dump by a newspaper.

In 2008, the Commercial Appeal in Memphis published a searchable database of concealed-carry hand gun permit owners in Tennessee that included names and ZIP codes of gun owners (but not addresses).

A subsequent study, using the information published by the Commercial Appeal, found burglaries in 2009 declined 18 percent in the city's ZIP codes with the most concealed-carry permits and generally increased in ZIP codes with the fewest.

The study suggested that, following publication of the Memphis database, burglary risk instead shifted to areas with fewer gun registrations. The study said "the results suggest that, despite activism on the part of gun owners against the publication of such databases, it may actually be gun permit holders who benefited" from publication.

While gun owners may dispute that conclusion, the study results do support the argument of gun-rights advocates who say gun ownership can be a deterrent to crime, not always a instrument of it.

(Heintzelman, editor of The News-Item, writes "The Week In News" for each Saturday edition.)

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