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Putnam County, New York has made national headlines for refusing to turn over pistol permit data to The Journal News. The newspaper caused a giant stir when it published the names and addresses of pistol permit holders.

Putnam County officials say they’re protecting the privacy of 11,000 people. Some critics of The Journal News say the gun owners will become burglary targets. Other critics say non-gun owners will become burglary targets. State Senator Greg Ball is so furious with the newspaper his office sent out the following statement:

“The county clerk has my full support to protect these law abiding citizens and if The Journal News thinks they can intimidate Putnam, they are sorely mistaken. Before I waver, the egghead editors at the Journal News can kiss my white, Irish behind.”

The New York Committee on Open Government says pistol permits are public records and Putnam County has to release them.

There are good reasons the pistol permits are public documents. Guns can be lethal weapons. A public system builds accountability and minimizes corruption. It makes sure the rigorous approval process is followed. If someone with a permit commits an egregious crime, there’s a paper trail. There’s a way to see if anything was missed.

Individual pistol permits must be approved by the State Department of Mental Hygiene, the State Department of Criminal Justice Services, a local police agency and a county judge. There is a detailed application, including four character references, fingerprints, photograph and questionnaire. Applicants listing guns have to include the make, model, serial number, caliber and a bill of sale. No one is allowed to possess an unregistered pistol.

Clerk WebsiteIn Monroe County, anyone can look up pistol permit owners on the county clerk’s website. The actual permit documents are not there, just the names of permit holders. The online system does not have the addresses of licensees or the guns on their permits. If the Democrat and Chronicle wanted to do a database similar to The Journal News, it would have to file an open records request, as the online system is far too limited and cumbersome.

Just because information is public, however, doesn’t mean it should be published. Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute thinks The Journal News blew an opportunity for more meaningful coverage on the issue of guns:

Journalists broadcast and publish criminal records, drunk driving records, arrest records, professional licenses, inspection records and all sorts of private information. But when we publish private information we should weigh the public’s right to know against the potential harm publishing could cause.

(snip)

Journalistic invasions of privacy ought to produce outstanding insights into an issue or problem, as The Washington Post did in “The Hidden Life of Guns.”

Tompkins suggested The Journal News look at the relationship between the prevalence of pistol permits and crime or whether there are flaws in the permitting process. He says plotting permits by Zip Codes could have the same impact without publishing individual information.

I think we can debate publishing pistol permit databases without severely limiting public access. State pistol permit laws recognize that owning a gun comes with enormous responsibility and shouldn’t be relegated to the shadows.

17 Responses to On Publishing Pistol Permits

  1. I have to wonder if the people who support publishing the permit information would be just as comfortable with a newspaper publishing the location, make, model, and year of every car , boat, and RV, in a particular county. It seems to me that if the argument is that people have a right to know that proper procedures were followed in the registration and use of a potentially dangerous item, then they would agree that vehicles fall into the same category.

  2. I personally would have no problem with your proposal Rich…. But the argument is a stretch.

  3. January 3, 2013 at 8:12 am Bill Nojay responds:

    No serious person believes the Journal News published the names and home addresses — complete with handy map — because they were \”news\”. They published them because they are promoting a political agenda, which is to eliminate most firearms ownership. As a private corporation, Gannett can promote whatever political agenda it wants, so they have the \”right\” under the 1st Amendment to publish the data, but let\’s not play along with the nonsense about it being a news story. The morphing of Gannett from a newspaper chain into a political advocacy front is a decision they are free to make, and I respect their right to make it. Others will replace them in the news business.

  4. I would agree there was an agenda behind this, but I still see to fail the point. As a web analyst, we consider data like this to be almost worthless. Like telling someone \’Hey, you had 2000 visitors to your site today!\” But in the end, so what? It\’s flawed data:

    1.) It shows the location of permits, not pistols. Perhaps many of those folks aren\’t actively owning a concealable weapon currently. Likely they did, but maybe not now.

    2.) It has no indication of whether or not a long gun (shotgun, rifle, or AR15 for that matter) is likely in the home. Those don\’t require permits, just background checks.

    So i guess my feeling is that the piece is neither good nor bad. Just kind of pointless. Except for one thing.

    It drove web traffic. And newspapers are desperately trying to do just that.

  5. Yes, it is public information, but maybe it should not be, maybe the legislature should make it private and available only to law enforcement via a court order. When you publish locations for gun permits, you also publish locations where there are no gun permits, thereby telling criminals that any particular house has no gun permit, increasing the likelihood that the house will be targeted by criminals. It is an act of bad faith and serves no public good….people should just say what it is, an act of vengeance in furtherance of a political agenda

  6. January 3, 2013 at 10:47 am Peking Humonculous responds:

    Hey- I have an idea- let\’s publish the names and addresses of New Yorkers who receive public assistance. Same thing, right? I mean, there would be no political agenda behind publishing such a list and it\’s information the public has a right to. Right? It\’s just reporting the news, right?

  7. January 3, 2013 at 2:54 pm theodore kumlander responds:

    i hope they do not publish my address.

  8. Just to clarify my original comment up above, it\’s not about the guns to me. It\’s about the point of the journalism. It\’s not scientific, it\’s not meaningful, and it\’s more like a Howard Stern shock tactic.

  9. The addresses were published by anti-gun people claiming to be journalists as a public shaming attempt. They want permit holders to be embarrassed and want their antigun readers to shame these people for exercising their rights. Many gun owners don\’t advertise the fact that they own and/or carry firearms. They don\’t want people to attract attention, they carry to protect themselves not because they are looking for trouble like wyatt earp. I don\’t advertise what or how many firearms I own because I don\’t want to be a target of theft. Pistols are difficult to attain legally in NY all this fish wrap of a newspaper did was inform criminals of which houses to check if they want to get a pistol.

    This is just another example of Americas continuing problem with guns. We are too busy villifying responsible and legal gun owners to do anything about those who use guns or whatever other tool they can find for crime. We need to do more about criminals, not make citizens who legally own firearms into criminals.

  10. Howard Stern actually publicly acknowledges his ownership of multiple guns including at least one pistol. He did so on his Wednesday show. He would never post anything remotely like this gun map because there is no \’endgame\’ in doing it. He actually talked about this on his show yesterday, although speaking about comedy bits. His point was \’when you come up with an idea (a bit for his show, a story for a journalist) the first thing you need to do is ask what the endgame is. What is the final result we hope to achieve?\” The paper that posted the map can\’t give you an endgame that is \’journalistic\’ in nature nor will it admit to an endgame that is \’to forward an agenda\’. So it should\’ve been a non-story, tossed around the newsroom but never even making it to the FOIA process let alone being published.
    And Mr. Nojay, well said.

    • Sorry, when I referenced Stern I wasn\’t making a direct correlation to the gun issue, just a reference to \”shock\” as a medium.

  11. I know, that was kinda my way of saying he isn\’t a good example of that anymore, whereas the mainstream media now does exactly the types of things Howard is associated with from 25 years ago, passing it off as news. It is just another example of misinformation taken as fact by a willingly ignorant population, but I completely understand what you meant. Plus I think a lot of people would be surprised that he is a gun owner and public about it, while not being a stereotypical \’gun nut\’ but much like the discussion of guns, the mere mention of Howard\’s name ends the conversation in many people\’s minds. Shame on them, they are the reason we can\’t have frank discussions about guns, violence, race, poverty, wealth, etc.

  12. And as I sit here listening to the show right now they are discussing the joke that is the press by talking about a car mechanic who was interviewed live during the Conn. shootings because he was a teacher\’s mechanic; mocking the sensationalism and the \’gotta be first\’ attitude of news outlets.
    \”Next tragedy I want to interview the most peripheral person possible\”. Well said Howard.

  13. January 3, 2013 at 11:15 pm Animule responds:

    The Journal News story \”jumped the shark\” so to speak, making a big deal about a non-story and also making it clear to anyone paying attention that advocacy now trumps real news on the front pages of today\’s newspapers. In the long run, this may actually bolster the NRA\’s position. I have long thought this group was paranoid about government taking their guns, but after The Journal News affair and the introduction of gun legislation that goes beyond just assault rifles, the NRA has a point. The left DOES want to take their guns away. The NRA isn\’t as nutty as it first appeared. As for the mainstream press, it\’s all about agenda reporting and one hopes that this results in a huge loss of credibility (assuming they have any left).

  14. January 4, 2013 at 7:05 am PJ Birkman responds:

    I believe that the newspaper has a right to publish this information, but doing so is irresponsible and serves no useful purpose.And that perhaps given the obvious dangers the law needs to be changed to make individual permit information private. And if we\’ve learned anything from the recent debate over control that means I obviously oppose the 1st Amendment and want the government to shut down all newspapers since it\’s impossible to believe in both a right and reasonable restrictions and responsibilities accompanying that right.

  15. Aren\’t there already reasonable restrictions on whatever right it is you won\’t mention?
    Did previous restrictions nationwide prove to make any difference?
    Did the current restrictions in NY, which mirror the now expired federal law, prevent anything?
    Nobody has yet to answer my questions about what \’makes\’ an assault rifle worse than any other semi-auto weapon, why 10 rounds is \’the\’ acceptable number of rounds per removable magazine, how that number was reached, why weapons with non-removible magazines are allowed to hold more than 10 rounds…. and on and on. Bayonet lugs and improperly referred to compensators (flash hiders) somehow make a weapon more dangerous than….. ? Bayonets can\’t fly 1000 yards and flash hider/compensator/muzzle brakes are just different names, misused and misunderstood, for the exact same part but with 1 being illegal in NY.
    That truck you get 12mpg in, that 3500 sq foot house you gobble natural gas and electricity up with, that 32 ounce soda and supersize fries….. we need to reasonably restrict more things for the good of society, right? Or is it only guns? As I said on another page here, if you can provide legitimate reasoning with facts and documentation to back it up and not just emotion than please do so. Respond, don\’t react. But there is never a response, just reaction based on misinformation. Misinformation pushed daily by the media. Misinformation passed off as news and accepted by the lazy sheep. Ba-ba-ba.

  16. This isn\’t about protecting people, this is about people who don\’t like firearms and don\’t see a reason for me and others to have them do they want them taken. Look at the woman who allegedly bought the guns for spengler, she\’s charged with merely filling a false business instrument. Why aren\’t legislators scrambling to make it a worse crime and add responsibility for what\’s commited with those weapons? The penalty is the same for her if he did nothing with those guns or killed hundreds.

    How bout I turn in my guns when they require alcohol interlocks on all cars? Scalled up to millions of units a year and added to the price of a new car it\’ll be easily affordable and think of all the dwi deaths it\’d prevent. Single dwi drivers have killed more people than millions of legal gun owners combined.

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