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.
In 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.
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.