Whenever a newspaper publishes controversial information in the name of transparency, the tendency for fellow journalists is to immediately defend the freedom of the press. But it’s hard to think of a good reason for the needlessly provocative map of registered Westchester and Rockland County gun owners posted on the Journal News’ website Dec. 23.
In defending the map, the newspaper’s management has argued that parents deciding where their children can play may want to know if their neighbors own guns. The same question might be asked by those with hostile neighbors.
But those questions can be answered by asking other parents — or in the case of neighborly tension, by visiting the county clerk’s office, since the permits are a matter of public record. That said, it’s a bit disingenuous for the Journal News to say the already-public nature of gun permits makes their map harmless. Freely accessible data filed in a cabinet at the county archives isn’t the same as an interactive online map; public information and published information aren’t the same.
But at least an argument can be made, however tenuous, that the Journal News’ map is in fact a public service. The same can’t be said for retaliatory posts by pro-gun bloggers listing the schools attended by the children of Journal News employees, which have no purpose but malice. The same goes for Gawker’s post listing all the handgun owners in New York City under the inflammatory headline “Here’s A List of All the A**holes Who Own Guns in New York City.”
Let’s hope that neither the gun owners ostracized unnecessarily by the Journal News nor the newspaper’s employees are met with any harm. Regardless, there’s a greater issue here in the refusal by Putnam County Clerk Dennis Sant and District Attorney Adam Levy to comply with the Journal News’ Freedom of Information request for its list of gun permits.
Putnam County’s refusal has no legal justification; if absolutely necessary, exceptions to FOIA requests should be determined by lawmakers after a public debate, and not on the arbitrary whim of some overzealous county clerk.
To this end, state Sen. Greg Ball, R-Patterson, has vowed to push legislation that would make state pistol permits confidential. We hope fears about the public nature of such information will prove to be overblown, and such legislation will prove unnecessary.
Unfortunately, we’re now debating whether government should become more opaque, thanks to one newspaper’s failure to use sound editorial judgment. Given that it published the map in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., massacre without providing a compelling reason why, the Journal News shouldn’t be surprised by the backlash.