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4:47 pm
Fri January 4, 2013

N.Y. Newspaper At Center Of Debate Over Guns After Revealing Permit Holders

Originally published on Fri January 4, 2013 7:02 pm

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. A newspaper in the normally sleepy suburbs of New York City is now at the center of a noisy debate over guns and privacy. After the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in neighboring Connecticut, the Journal News in White Plains published an interactive map. On the map, the names and addresses of local gun permit holders. As NPR's Joel Rose reports, local leaders are now trying to make sure the paper can't do it again.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: In New York State, the names and addresses of gun permit holders are considered public information. So when the Journal News asked for them under the state's freedom of information law, county officials in Westchester and Rockland Counties complied, turning over information for roughly 40,000 permit holders that the newspaper published on its website. But officials in Putnam County, a largely rural area about an hour north of Manhattan, did not.

DENNIS SANT: We're not talking about the rule of law anymore. We're talking about endangering our citizens.

ROSE: Dennis Sant is the Putnam County Clerk. At a press conference yesterday, Sant explained why he will not comply with the Journal News' request.

SANT: I'm refusing because I could not live with myself if one of my pistol-permit holders in Putnam County had to face a dangerous situation.

ROSE: Dangerous, says State Senator Greg Ball, because the online map makes it easy to find anyone with a gun permit, including victims of domestic violence who got that permit to protect themselves and their families.

SENATOR GREG BALL: ...and retired cops who put murderers and rapists and thugs and gang members in jail and now their families are on an interactive map for some nutjob to get out of jail and come kill him.

ROSE: Ball has introduced a bill that would make it illegal to disseminate information about gun permits. The Journal News declined repeated interview requests for this story, although the paper did release a statement saying it will push back aggressively to make Putnam County officials comply with their request.

The Journal News has received a flood of negative attention since publishing the map two weeks ago. The paper's offices in Westchester closed briefly on Wednesday because of an anthrax scare. And it's hired armed security guards to protect its staff, though the paper has its defenders, including Michael Sinclair, who works in the same White Plains office building where the paper is headquartered.

MICHAEL SINCLAIR: I don't see what the commotion's about, you know, if it's public information you can look it up yourself and what's the deal if it was posted in an article. I mean, unless these people feel that their neighbors are going to look at them differently, then maybe they should rethink owning a gun.

ROSE: First Amendment advocates are quick to defend the Journal News' legal right to publish the gun permit information. But some critics say the argument here isn't just over what is legal.

JULIE MOOS: They absolutely have a right to publish it. Unfortunately, that alone doesn't explain the value of publishing it.

ROSE: Julie Moos heads Poynter Online, the website of a nonprofit Poynter Institute for Journalism. She says the Journal News should've provided more analysis and reporting about what the data means instead of leaving its readers to sort through the names and addresses largely on their own.

MOOS: Particularly because they tied it to the Newtown shootings, the implication that you're left with is that there is some danger simply to people in this county owning guns. Without any supporting materials, people are left to draw their own conclusions about what it means. And people will draw those conclusions from their own experiences, their own biases and their own fears.

ROSE: Moos says there are 15 states including New York where information about gun permit holders is now part of the public record. A lawmaker in Connecticut recently introduced a bill that would add that state to the list. But few news organizations seem to be racing to follow in the footsteps of the Journal News. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.