In defense of publishing data on gun ownership
There is nothing wrong with a newspaper asking for, and then publishing a list of all the people in the community who have applied for or have received a permit to carry a concealed weapon, as long as that information is a matter of public record. Doing so endangers no lives, and is as benign as publishing information about property tax rolls, which in most areas is available online freely. Those listings include the name of the homeowner, as well as the assessed taxable value of the home. When people come into contact with the government—arrests, marriage certificates, home purchases, bankruptcies and foreclosures, to name a few examples—that information is public record. Some identifying data, such as birth dates and Social Security Numbers, are redacted, and that makes sense. Public information isn’t meant to invite fraud. But it is meant to be available to the public, and the press has a right to publish that information.
Some disclosure: I am a First Amendment absolutist. I believe there was a reason the five freedoms of expression were put first in the Bill of Rights. That’s probably not surprising, given that I spent nearly a decade working for newspapers in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Iowa.
Part of the media’s role in society is to gather data and explain what that data means. Gun ownership and gun restrictions are important conversations right now, and the rates of people in a community who own or carry weapons gives information valuable to that conversation. A lot of gun owners resist that, claiming privacy and hypothetical danger to them, but the fact is, until the legislature says otherwise—which is happening in some states and has already happened in others, that information is public. And that means people are allowed to access it. If you don’t like that, fine, but change the law—don’t demonize the people who are working to hold the government, and especially law enforcement accountable and ensure transparency.
The Romenesko threads about the Cherokee County Scout apology and various Facebook posts are filled with a lot of people suggesting that newspapers like the Scout would be better leaving well enough alone, not infringing on the privacy of law-abiding citizens, and that they have no reason to know.
Whenever you print something that involves personal information, you have an ethical obligation to sort through why you might publish it and why you might not. The editor who mentored me as I made the transition from reporting to editing had a fairly simple calculus on this point: What harm will printing it do, and what good will it do. For example, I once covered a murder trial where a man’s children—ages 5 and 11—witnessed the crime and testified against him. I was curious whether we should name them, but we decided that their names wouldn’t add anything to the story, but it might cause them embarrassment.
What good does publishing a list of the people with concealed carry permits do?
- It opens a window into gun culture as it exists in America
- It offers people the information to know if their neighbors, or the people in the store where they are shopping, are armed
- It gives insight into the ongoing debate about the role of guns in our society
What harm does publishing that list cause?
- One of the constant refrains in the comments on the Scout story is that it tells criminals where they might be able to steal guns.
- The newspaper is printing information that the gun owner may have expected to be private.
- It demonizes or stigmatizes law-abiding citizens.
- The newspaper has no reason to publish the information, and is acting in bad faith by doing so.
Allow me to take these arguments in order.
While gun theft does happen—it appears that about 170,000 guns were stolen during burglaries annually from 2005-2010—criminals get more guns from private transactions and straw man sales, and there is no evidence that any publication of a list of concealed carry permit owners has every resulted in a burglary where a firearm was stolen.
While the gun owner may believe the information is private, or even wish that it were private, in most states, concealed carry permits are a matter of public record. If that seems wrong, work to change the law.
The charge of demonizing law-abiding citizens smacks of projection. Whether someone owns a gun or holds a concealed carry permit is a matter of fact, and should be presented as such. Without delving into the semiotics of this, it’s no different from the lists of real estate transactions run in many newspapers.
The last argument angers me the most. First, you can say what you’d like to read, or what you’d prefer a newspaper ran, but you don’t get to blindly assert they have no reason for asking for information. And besides, the beauty of public information is the reason you want it doesn’t matter, and, in fact, shouldn’t even come up—it’s public, and so available to members of the public, and members of the media. And thirdly, sending out regular public information requests is an essential part of a journalist’s mission. Those requests help ensure transparency and openness from government, something that Geneva Overholser notes is especially important right now, given the veil of secrecy over so much government.
In her fantastic piece talking about the importance of public access to record, she says:
But there are countless compelling reasons to publish data that have nothing to do with breaking the law. Some newspapers bravely (and wisely) publish the salaries of all public officials, as well as top salaries of executives of businesses in their communities. Some recently have published teachers’ classroom ratings. This kind of information is:
always terrifically well-read, and
guaranteed to provoke outrage.
“I’ll be robbed,” say the well-paid officials. “This isn’t a fair way to judge,” say the teachers. These predictable reactions do not negate the value of putting information into the hands of people to enable them to know themselves and their communities, to lead fuller lives and be better citizens.
And empowering people in communities to make decisions based on the information that is (or should be) publicly available to them is one of the highest ideals of journalism.