Editorials Don’t Kill People

Imagine that you are an editorial writer at a newspaper. In honor of the annual celebration of government transparency known as Sunshine Week, you decide to write a column that includes a link to a public-records database that lists names and addresses of all members of a certain population.

Now, try to imagine which of the following databases might provoke a reader response so vociferous that you, the editorial writer, would receive death threats:

1. A list of Republican donors to Democratic political candidates.

2. A list of paroled sex offenders.

3. A list of flat-fee real-estate agents.

4. A list of people with permits to carry a concealed handgun.

And the answer is …

No. 4. Christian Trejbal, who writes for the Roanoke Times, thought it would be instructive to publish a list of the area’s handgun owners. After gathering up the information — it wasn’t simply posted on some government agency’s website — here, in part, is what he wrote:

There are good reasons the records are open to public scrutiny. People might like to know if their neighbors carry. Parents might like to know if a member of the car pool has a pistol in the glove box. Employers might like to know if employees are bringing weapons to the office. … This is not about being for or against guns. There are plenty of reasons people choose to carry weapons: fear of a violent ex-lover, concern about criminals or worry that the king of England might try to get into your house. There are plenty of reasons to question the wisdom of widespread gun ownership, too. But that’s a debate for another time.

Many of the area residents did not take to Trejbal’s idea. (To be fair, some of the objections concerned flawed listings in the database.) The resultant hubbub led the Times to pull the database, and it left Trejbal to write his subsequent columns about air-dried laundry and vanity plates.

This raises an interesting conundrum for journalists, bloggers, and anyone else who has access to public records — which, these days, is pretty much anyone with a computer: At what point does the aggregation and dissemination of public records cross the line into a violation of privacy? For instance, the real-estate sales data that Chad Syverson and Steve Levitt analyzed in their paper about agents’ misaligned incentives was derived from public records; but real-estate agents strongly objected to the accumulation of all these data.

I also wonder why, specifically, the Roanoke-area gun owners objected to their names being published; i.e., what advantage do they gain by having a gun and yet not having other people know they have a gun? It seems to me that, despite Trejbal’s protestations, this incident does say something significant about guns and the people who own them.


bharshaw

Isn't the logic the same as "concealed carry"--if enough people carry concealed weapons, the theory goes that bad guys won't know who is and who isn't, so will avoid everyone? (But I suspect it's the same as in David Brin's Transparent Society, we want privacy for ourselves, and transparency for everyone else.

An interesting example of publishing government data is the Environmental Working Group's publication of the names and payments made to farmers by USDA. (http://www.ewg.org/farm/) They won a court case under FOIA to get the data. It's been a weapon in the hands of those who oppose farm programs (though not the ultimate weapon). Ken Cook in his blog just explained why they weren't publishing the names of food stamp participants. (http://www.mulchblog.)

prosa

Gun owners can be ... peculiar. Consider the shameful Zumbo affair, in which a lifelong NRA member and respected hunting journalist was mercilessly pilloried and had his career destroyed merely for suggesting that hunters shouldn't be using assault rifle knockoffs.

The Cottage Economist

People in general don't like information about themselves published in databases where the results are anything more than wholesale data. It is my opinion that the public is increasingly (and with good cause) seeing public databases as creations with little or no benefit to them, but with great benefit to politicians, marketers, scammers, and other individuals with ulterior motives.

This particular instance is a good exampleof this. Very few people would publish a full list of the names of concealed gun owners as citizen heroes. (Those that might think of it whould most likely keep the data wholesale out of respect for the owners' privacy .) But those with an axe to grind against handgun ownership might consider it to add an extra social dissincentive against ownership. (i.e: You are now open to harrasment by those who think that you're wrong for owning a handgun.)

The Cottage Economist

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Kirilius

In my experience people don't usually try to conceal something that they feel is right, good and they are proud of.
In this story about the the guns that obviously is not the case :)

libertytech

The problem with releasing the gun owner information is that some people carry a gun for protection from someone they know. A woman that was on this list has to move again because an old boyfriend that she has been hiding from saw her name on the list, with her address. It is a shame that we have to beg the government to carry a concealed weapon, and then the sell our information to the highest bidder.

egretman

This reminds me. I should send Stephen Colbert my favorite bumber sticker.

"Support Your Right To Arm Bears"

wk633

In Santa Barbara, a whole bunch of people lost their jobs and the daily paper is a shadow of its former self, all over the publishing of Rob Lowe's address in a story about a fight with a neighbor over a hedge.

http://sbpueblo.blogspot.com/2006/07/why-barney-quit-news-press.html

So the important issue is who's address you publish :-)

yvetteu

We have a related lawsuit going on in southwest Ohio to change a state law that gives journalists access to applications for concealed-carry permits. These are records that the general public CANNOT access.

The law defines a journalist as "someone who is employed by or working for a newspaper, magazine, broadcast station or similar medium." A Cincinnati Enquirer staff reporter is named as a defendant in the case because he filed a request for the list, as is the president of a group called Ohioans For Concealed Carry who said he wants the records to do demographics research. He says he should qualify as a journalist because his group has a Web site that includes original written content about gun issues and produces podcasts.

You can read a story about the lawsuit on the Enquirer's web site: http://news.enquirer.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070317/NEWS01/703170424/-1/all

David N.

Since when did registered gun owners, or anyone else acting lawfully, have to justify their right to privacy? Do I need an "advantage to gain" for keeping my library borrowings or who I vote for a secret?

You say their pique says something significant about guns and owners, but don't say what that is. I suggest you do so to avoid appearing to have resorted to this cheap rhetorical trick.

There's no conundrum here. Take that concealed carry database and do all the statistics you want; when you start publishing people's names in the paper, that's when you've crossed the line.

brent

Three things, which have been touched upon above:

1. Americans are generally getting tired of easy public access to information about themselves. Mistakes seem to happen all of the time. For example, local governments have put people's social security numbers, along with their full legal names and home addresses, in online databases. The problems caused by these mistakes cannot be undone.

2. Concealed weapons work as a general crime deterrent in large part because criminals do not know which citizens are carrying. If those citizens carried unconcealed weapons, then the weapons become a deterrent for crimes against themselves alone. Criminals are smart and would target citizens who prefer not to carry. The online database takes away the general deterrent by giving criminals the ability to focus on lower risk targets.

3. Some citizens apply for a concealed permit due to a specific threat, like an estranged spouse. The database exposes that information to the spouse, making those citizens more vulnerable.

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snubgodtoh

Forgive me if this has been mentioned:

The types of people who carry guns (sadly I think this includes cops and our lower-level military personnel) can't wait to use them. More people knowing that they pack heat lowers the probability they will be granted this opportunity.

snubgodtoh

I just thought that I should exclude concealed carriers that have been somehow victimized from the above analysis.

touchstone

Our fears of "types" of people,(rational or irrational), leads to the desire for all kinds of lists.
Gun owners
Members of fundamentalist Christian churches
Members of the local Mosque
People who are HIV positive
People receiving methadone treatment or those in therapy for mental illnesses
The chronically unemployed

Before long each of us is on at least one list.

Terence

Hello snubgodtoh,

I had to register for this blog just to reply to what I think you said in your comment about people who carry guns not being able to wait to use them.

I very much disagree with your statement, and I think that most gun owners are very aware of the consequences of their potential actions.

I think you should familiarize yourself with the awesome legal consequences of using a firearm in self defense. If you are not jailed on criminal charges -- still a possibility even if you feel your life is in danger -- you may still be bankrupted by civil lawsuits.

And thats to say nothing of the moral and psychological consequences of taking another life.

Anyone who has made the slightest investigation of the consequences of using deadly force is aware, however dimly, that it is a last resort, in many cases preferably only to its alternative -- ie. being shot yourself or watching your family seriously injured or killed.

I would encourage you to investigate the issues and the community and see how this widespread this awareness is. I guarantee you, you will change your point of view.

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dpm

There are lots of good reasons to use guns — they're critical for law enforcement and the military, parts of many historical collections, essential tools for farmers, required equipment for several sports, a matter of survival when travelling in the arctic or other remote areas, and part of a long. proud hunting tradition, especially for rural and aboriginal peoples.

Unfortunately, especially in the U.S., guns can also be part of a culture of fear, the same fear culture that causes people to move out of inner cities, demand that the government ban toothpaste on flights, and think that terrorism or immigrants are a bigger threat than automobile accidents. If you assume that the people carrying conceal weapons (other than as a part of their job) tend to be the most paranoid members of that culture, it's hardly surprising that they'd be upset about seeing their names published. Now someone will be coming to get them in the night ...

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egretman

...because of the broad and unfair societal bias against gun owners.

I think we can all agree that the most persecuted people in America are Christians and gun owners. Every society picks on the most powerless.

supagold

I also had to register to reply to these comments. Derek hit the nail on the head. Listen to the obviously prejudiced comments about gun owners just in this post, and you'll see why people wouldn't like having their names published on a list.

I bet a much closer correlation could be drawn between people who have ever received welfare benefits and been convicted of a violent crime than those who have have received a concealed carry permit. Yet, if you published a list of people receiving welfare benefits in the paper, there would (rightly) be a firestorm of protest.

mckayvo

I couldn't give any real numbers with this... but I do know, from some personal experience, that one of the big reasons criminals target homes to burglarize is the presence of guns. This would be another reason that I wouldn't want the whole town to know that I had at least one.

Vesta

When you publish the names of gun owners you make them targets for theft. I worked with people who shoot as a hobby. They are fanatical about keeping their home addresses out of the paper. Everyone has stories of someone in their club being robbed after information of their hobby and their address gets out.

And yes you need a concealed permit if you are transporting guns for hobby shooting. So these are not just people carrying loaded pistols for protection.

Also getting household insurance for a collection of guns is difficult. I know of one target shooter who had a large collection of guns at his home. They were all in safes, but as soon as his address was published his insurance company dropped him because they were afraid of theft. People who hobby shoot have multiple guns, and very expensive guns. they are targets for theft and now their local paper just made it easier to find them.

How does publishing the names of law abiding gun owners make anyone safer?

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jkiger

Why not publish the names? Everyone has access to them. There should be no assumption of privacy when filing for something that is public information.

However, I believe it is of more use to the reader to quote people named in the database. I recently did a story about doctors and money they accept from drug companies. I could have listed every doctor from a state database going back years. I chose just to name the doc that I got a quote from explaining the payments. However, I still might name all the docs in a future story.

Court records, professional licenses, jail logs, bankruptcies, incorporations, political donations, traffic tickets... it all seems fair game to me.