The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Local News

December 27, 2012

N.Y. news site stirs outrage after publishing gun owners’ names

JEFFERSON — In the annals of the gun debate, both the act and the outrage that followed are familiar: On Saturday, the Journal News of White Plains, N.Y., published an interactive map showing the names and addresses of thousands of handgun permit holders in Westchester and Rockland counties.

Click on a dot and zoom in: You’ll get a name and an address of everybody who owns a handgun permit, which the paper obtained through a public records request.

The story soon dominated the Internet. Through Wednesday, it was still drawing outrage from online commentators as well as from conservative political interests such as Breitbart.com, which saw a media outlet targeting law-abiding gun owners’ privacy - and safety - after a polarizing tragedy in Newtown, Conn.

“I am outraged by this as you have put me, my family, friends and others at risk,” wrote Keisha Sutton on the newspaper’s Facebook page. “My family and friends consist of law enforcement officers and ’licensed’ handgun owners.”

Others argued that publishing such personal information would drive gun owners to the black market.

CynDee Royle, the newspaper’s editor and vice president/news, was not surprised at the reaction.

“We knew publication of the database would be controversial,” she said, “but we felt sharing as much information as we could about gun ownership in our area was important in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings.”

Al Tompkins, a faculty member at the nonprofit Poynter Institute for journalism, criticized the database, saying in an email published on Poynter.org: “Publishing gun owners’ names makes them targets for theft or public ridicule.”

But that may not happen, according to a study by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that examined the aftermath of a similar gun-ownership data dump by a newspaper.

In 2008, the Commercial Appeal in Memphis published a searchable database of concealed-carry handgun permit owners in Tennessee that included names and ZIP codes of gun owners (but not addresses). A similar furor followed. “What they’ve done is give criminals a lighted pathway to (burglarize) the homes of gun owners,” Chris Cox, now the top lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, told the paper at the time.

But that concern turned out to be wrong, according to the 2010 study by Alessandro Acquisti, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon, and Catherine Tucker, a professor at MIT, titled “Guns, Privacy and Crime.”

Using the information published by the Commercial Appeal, they found burglaries in 2009 declined 18 percent in the city’s ZIP codes with the most concealed-carry permits and generally increased in ZIP codes with the fewest.

The researchers found no difference for violent crimes, such as assault, that often lack premeditation.

The study suggested that, following publication of the Memphis database, burglary risk instead shifted to areas with fewer gun registrations. In fact, the study noted that the “results suggest that, despite activism on the part of gun owners against the publication of such databases, it may actually be gun permit holders who benefited” from publication.

In an email, Acquisti said that, to his knowledge, the study was the first to examine how publicizing the location of guns affected crime rates.

He called the issue “extremely complex” and cautioned about making generalizations from one study.

Even though he didn’t find evidence that publishing gun owners’ general locations put owners in danger, he said a “lack of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

Acquisti said it was an “open question” whether increasingly precise location data, like that published on the Journal News’ website, would affect burglar behavior.

The findings don’t clear up a different NRA talking point - that as its top strategist Cox had put it, “The essence of right-to-carry is that in a world where wolves cannot distinguish between lions and lambs, the whole flock is safer.”

In other words, instead of claiming gun privacy as a means of protection for those who choose to carry, the lions-and-lambs argument holds that gun privacy protects the general public, including those who don’t own a gun.

“Frequently, in this debate, personal privacy is contrasted to collective security,” the study’s authors wrote. “However, there are situations where the opposite may happen: criminals may use personal data to choose which potential victims to avoid. Our results bear witness to the nuances of this debate.”

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