Misfire: Gun-permit controversy leads to flawed legislation

Friday, January 4, 2013

When The Journal News, a suburban New York newspaper, published the names of gun-permit holders late last month, the backlash was immediate.

“This is CRAZY!! Why in the world would you post every licensed gun owner information?? What do you hope to accomplish by doing this. This is the type of thing you do for sex offenders not law abiding gun owners. What next? should i hang a flag outside my house that says I own a gun? I am canceling my subscription with your paper today!!!” one of hundreds of online commenters said, according to ABC News.

I was the editor of The Journal News in the early ‘90s and know the market well. Publishing the names was a gutsy move and a significant risk. I’m sure it wasn’t done lightly.

In The Journal News’ defense, these were public records, authorized for release by state law. In the wake of the nearby Newtown, conn., shootings, every community wonders about gun use and availability in its own neighborhoods.

On the other hand, the release of hundreds of individual names and addresses raises the question of whether the same story could have been told in the aggregate, tallying permits by town and neighborhood to show where gun ownership is greatest, and how that might correlate with statistics about gun violence or crime.

It’s interesting to note that The Journal News did a similar project naming gun-permit holders in 2006, but there was no firestorm. Of course, we didn’t have Facebook and Twitter then. Where once a newspaper could anticipate the reaction of its own community, the reach of social media means everyone is a potential reader — and critic.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by the strongly negative reaction to the newspaper’s report. We live in a time of increased concern about personal privacy, and most Americans’ names appear in the news media at their birth, marriage and death. Opening a newspaper or online database and seeing your name can startle you, public record or not.

Although we can debate the merits of the journalism, there is no question about the news paper’s First Amendment protection. It had every right to publish this public information.

That’s why an announcement by a delegate in the Maryland State legislature was so baffling.

Delegate Pat McDonough announced last week that he would introduce legislation to “prohibit newspapers and other publications from printing personal or private information about firearm owners,” according to the Baltimore City Paper.

“The bill is going to prohibit publications from printing private information of gun owners,” he said. “This is really a response to the paper in New York which claimed what they were doing was for the public good, but what it really is is a massive editorial taking up two pages of the newspaper reflecting the position of the newspaper. It’s really dishonest to not say it is an editorial,” he told the Baltimore newspaper.

“You know yourself that there are regulations on the First Amendment. You know there are laws against scandal [sic] or things that are harmful,” McDonough continued.

Clearly McDonough hasn’t done a lot of research on the bill. Exceptions to the free-press clause of the First Amendment are few and narrow; avoiding scandal or a general perception of harm are not among them.

While robust state public-information laws are valuable to society, legislatures have the right to retool them as they wish. Rewriting the First Amendment is another matter entirely.

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