I am surprised that the names and addresses of the permit holders are not exempted from release by a state privacy act?
I'm also surprised. State laws differ, and this could not have happened in Missouri. Under RSMo. 571.101.9, qualifications to carry a concealed weapon, which are the only sort of records of gun ownership maintained in Missouri, are not open to the public.
I don't think it could have happened in any other state where I've worked as a reporter. It looks like New York has a damaging loophole that needs to be closed, and I hope the NRA is working hard right now to check the laws of the other states to see how many other states there are where a bomb like this could blow up.
I'm posting this at some length because I want gun rights advocates to know that at least some of us in the media understand that what this New York newspaper did was wrong, and can make a rational case from a journalistic perspective why they were wrong. Free Republic gets read in a lot of other places and I hope this gets into people's hands in the NRA and elsewhere who can do some good.
I am normally a huge advocate of public access to government information — the government does, after all, work for the taxpayers, not other way around — and I have a decades-long history of fighting for access to records that some people don't want publicized. Sometimes that led to interesting stories about efforts to sell government property for cut-rate prices to friends, bids given to people who were not the low bidder, prosecutors dropping charges for no good reason when friends are involved, or major embezzlement cases in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars which elected officials tried to cover up via quiet resignations rather than prosecutions.
There are very good reasons why most of what the government does needs to be open to public inspection.
Most, but not all.
Longstanding exceptions exist in most if not all states for legal, personnel and real estate matters. For example, everybody understands that because lawyer-client conversations are confidential, government agencies have the right to get legal advice in a lawsuit without having the other side listen in. Everybody understands that if a city employee is accused of some sort of nonsense, the city council should have the right to keep unfounded accusations from going public, with the caveat that if the person complaining thinks misconduct has been covered up, that person can always sue, which typically gets the closed personnel information out into the public court record. Similar closed records rules apply to schools with minors, to many juvenile court records, to police with pending investigations, and other longstanding legitimate exemptions. Details differ from state to state, but the principle is well-established that some things that government does can, should, or even must remain confidential.
Apart from those unusual cases, I am not used to advocating for more government secrecy, but I need to do so here.
What this newspaper did was **WAY** out of line even though what they did was apparently in compliance with state law in New York. I've been asking repeatedly on professional journalism websites what possible public purpose this article served other than stigmatizing gun owners. So far, nobody has been able to give me any rational public purpose; even some of the nearby news media are annoyed at what this newspaper did.
I've tried to keep an open mind and listen to both sides, but I think it's now become obvious that there **IS** no valid public purpose to having this information public. Many other states, perhaps most other states, do not make such lists public.
New York needs to change its law.
Until the law changes, what the New York newspaper did was legal. They will win any lawsuit against them because they printed public information that was legally available to anyone requesting it.
While it was legal, what the newspaper did was unnecessary, was foolish, has apparently already led to threats against prison guards, and could quite realistically end up getting someone robbed, injured, or killed.
This is an issue which is so egregious that I believe gun rights organizations like the NRA can make common cause with people who don't typically share our views. In a state like New York, winning means convincing Democrats to change their views, and I believe that is quite possible in this case.
One obvious example is victim advocate organizations, which tend to be dominated by liberal feminists. Because a gun is one of the most effective ways for a physically smaller woman to defend herself against unexpected attacks by a current or former boyfriend or husband, there are women who own guns to protect themselves but nobody knew that until now, and as a result of this newspaper's action, those female domestic violence victims have now lost the element of surprise. Some of them already seem to have come forward and they need to get a lot of attention because legislators on the Democratic side of the aisle **WILL** listen to victims of domestic violence.
Another obvious example is inner-city storekeepers and employees, many of whom are black or Hispanic. They may agree with us on very little politically, but getting a black or Hispanic liquor store owner on television explaining why he voted for Obama but is furious that the newspaper outed him as a gun owner could be very useful. There are lots of legal black gun owners who will vote Democrat in every election and will put pressure on their Democratic state legislators to close access to records identifying them as gun owners.
My third suggestion will be harder because people in the media typically have to steer clear of public political activism unless they're in a management role. However, are there some veteran New York crime reporters who are willing to go public, explain that they are gun owners, and say that they believe their personal safety (perhaps because of crime coverage, or specific threats against them) justified their ownership of guns for personal protection? Are there some New York reporters with a stack of newswriting awards for investigative reporting who are willing to stand up and say that there is no valid public purpose for their gun ownership being made public, and maybe add that at an earlier point in their career their lives and the lives of their families were endangered by their reporting, so they needed to have a weapon for self-defense?
News media organizations can be expected to push for all government records and government meetings to be open. I understand that. 99 percent of the time I agree. This is the 1 percent exception, and getting some veteran reporters to testify before the New York legislature could be helpful — especially if they are known and respected by some of the Democratic members of the legislature.
The NRA is a very effective organization. I assume people from the NRA national leadership monitor Free Republic regularly. I very much hope that all of what I'm suggesting has already become part of the NRA’s plans, and if not, that the NRA makes it a high priority to get female domestic violence victims and inner-city minority storeowners to advocate for closing these public records, and gets some New York reporters with a long history of fighting for public access to information who are willing to publicly state that they can find no valid reason for gun ownership records to be public.
In a state like New York, changing the law requires convincing Democrats to change their minds. I think that's doable. This situation is so egregious that some key parts of the usual Democratic coalition may be willing to act reasonably to change the law.
Let me close by saying this. I'm used to being forced to defend the right of my news media colleagues to make wrong, stupid, and even idiotic decisions. The First Amendment was designed to protect stupid and unpopular speech.
I cannot remember any other time in at least two decades that I have called for closing access to public records that are now open. Nobody has been able to give me a public purpose for this information being open to the public, with the sole exception that it might allow the public to report mentally unstable gun owners. Even if that reason were valid, it could be accomplished more effectively by implementing better systems to identify and flag people with mental health issues, and it would have done nothing to stop the Sandy Hook shooting since the shooter apparently stole his mother's guns rather than trying to buy guns himself. It has become obvious that publicizing the list of gun owners has generated actual threats, and poses a real risk to property, person, and even life.
News media organizations need to back off from defending this newspaper. The newspaper was wrong, and unfortunately, they're not backing down. Others in the news media need to stand up and declare publicly that there was no valid public purpose for publicizing the names and addresses of individual gun owners, and doing so put people at real risk for no good reason.
Sooner or later, if nothing is done, there’ll be someone dead as a result of that newspaper's action. Let's get the law changed before that happens.