Search the Site

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.