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Newspapers and guns: If data is available, should it always be published?

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Tension around issues of gun ownership, gun-control legislation and other firearms-related topics has been at a fever pitch ever since the recent mass shooting of elementary-school children in Connecticut — but one small-town newspaper in New York state touched off a particularly harsh firestorm of criticism by printing the addresses of registered gun owners, laid out on a Google map. Was this useful information published as a community service and a tribute to the recently deceased victims at Sandy Hook? Or was it an attempt to libel legal gun owners by making their behavior seem reprehensible?

The answer depends on you ask, but it raises a question that is becoming more and more relevant in this era of “big data”: namely, just because certain kinds of information are publicly available and can be filtered and aggregated in various ways, does that mean we are always justified in publishing them? It also raises a question we have written about before in a different context: Does publishing things in a newspaper give them more weight than just making the same information available online?

The paper that published the gun-ownership information is the Journal News, a Gannett-owned publication that covers the region around New York City. Editors submitted freedom-of-information requests for the names and addresses of registered gun owners in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties — information that is public by state law — and then plotted those addresses on a Google map.

Gun ownership map

Was there a larger issue at stake? The paper says yes

The Journal News feature pointed out that each dot on the map only represented someone who had applied for and received a permit to own a handgun, and didn’t mean they actually had one. It also noted that the information only covered pistols or revolvers, and not rifles, shotguns or the type of assault rifle that was used in the Sandy Hook school shooting — all of which can be bought without a permit. And the newspaper wrote a long story about why it published the data: in part, because it believes that such information should be more available to the public, so that residents know who in their neighborhood owns guns, as well as how many and what kind.

Within hours of being published, the story and map were circulated through Facebook and Twitter — the map has been recommended on Facebook almost 40,000 times — and were loudly criticized by conservative news outlets such as Instapundit and Fox News. Some readers protested that publishing the data in such a way opened owners up to theft or intimidation: one said that the article was designed to “sensationalize the anti-gun frenzy” and another argued that by publishing their addresses, the paper had equated them with “sex offenders and murderers,” since those are the other kinds of public information that are usually mapped by newspapers.

Facebook gun comments

In retaliation for the perceived injustice of publishing gun-owners’ addresses, at least one blogger — a lawyer, real-estate agent and author — published the addresses of journalists and executives at the Journal News, including the paper’s publisher and the editor, as well as the reporter who wrote the story accompanying the map. In addition to their addresses, he also published links to their public Facebook profiles and photos, saying journalists should be prepared to have their own personal information become public if they are going to do so to others.

Should the media have its own Hippocratic oath?

There was almost as much debate among media-industry insiders about the wisdom of publishing this data as there was outside the industry. New York Times editor Patrick Laforge and Guardian writer Heidi Moore, for example, went back and forth on Twitter for some time about the propriety of publishing such a map — with Moore arguing that it served no real journalistic purpose, since there was no larger point to the data: in other words, no larger issue was being raised, none of the owners were interviewed, and the data was not used to make any kind of broader point about gun ownership.


Poynter Institute faculty member Al Tompkins also argued that the newspaper handled the information in the wrong way, saying the publication of the gun owners’ addresses would have been appropriate if it was related to an investigative series on gun violence or a story with substantial public benefit — but since it wasn’t, he said the paper had not justified its invasion of people’s privacy. In effect, Tompkins argued that journalists should be bound by something like the physician’s oath, which states “First, do no harm.”

But does the simple act of mapping gun permits qualify as harm? And how can publicizing that be an invasion of privacy, if the data itself is legally considered public? Those are just a couple of questions the Journal News piece raises. The first seems to have as much to do with the perceived power of the newspaper as it does anything else — just as the publication of a photo by the New York Post (of a man about to be hit by a subway train) was seen as reprehensible in part because of the way it publicized that event.

The second question goes to the heart of the “open government” or “open data” movement: there are reams of information contained in theoretically public databases that many people might still consider private, whether it’s school information or voting records — in the same way that information on Facebook or other social networks may technically be public, but is also seen by many as private (as illustrated by a recent incident involving Randi Zuckerberg, sister of Facebook’s co-founder and CEO). At what point are we justified in making that data fully public? The answers to those questions are far from clear.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock/Demis Vrublevski

20 Responses to “Newspapers and guns: If data is available, should it always be published?”

  1. dan tynan

    A few thoughts:

    There was real journalistic value in the map. When I saw it my first reaction was ‘my god they’ve got a lot of guns in that part of new york.’ but there was little value in publishing the names and addresses along with each dot on the map, even if that info was available elsewhere. that should have been redacted.

    the arguments about this map facilitating burglary are pretty stupid. if you’re a burglar, your three biggest concerns are a) is there valuable stuff in there, b) are the owners home, and c) do they have a dog? they’d do better consulting zillow, assuming petty criminals use the internet to research their crimes, which I doubt.

    the argument that publishing the names of women who’ve had abortions is even more ludicrous. when is the last time somebody used their abortion to hurt you? there are good reasons for making a public database for registered gun owners, and they should apply equally to all types of guns.

    finally, the blogger who retaliated against the paper by publishing their personal information — not public, not mandated by law — is an asshat. but that’s pretty obvious already.

    thanks for the thought provoking post.


  2. So, the Journal which publishes the anti-gun activist agenda, should be held accountable for non-journalist activity, i.e., propaganda. They have in many ways just made the entire community also more vulnerable to crime.

    It does not require a journalist nor journalism to publish propaganda such as a pre-defined agenda, or talking points, or a press release from a politically motivated activist organization. I can do this without being a journalist, I can cut and paste such ideas and text onto the web or onto paper and send it out. That does not make me a journalist. Also, when considered from the viewpoint of an activist pushing their own agenda, but using media, it is still propaganda and not journalism.

    I believe the newspaper can be easily sued now for any attacks, or other crime, etc. that happen to anyone in the area of the map, whether gun owner, or not. They have revealed who can defend themselves to criminals, and worse yet, who cannot. The Journal has laid itself open to any sort of legal recourse victims will take. I would think someone at the management level would consider that a very costly liability.

    Since the activist mentality of the non-journalists at this newspaper do not consider the consequences of their actions, they will be able to be and ought to be held liable. The ones who are going to be hurt the most will be the poor, old, young, and those with some kind of infirmity. So, the activist has just attacked those he most likely thinks he is protecting. He has damaged his community in ways he cannot understand.

    So, is the idea to destroy the public safety of the community to advance a political agenda? That is what the end result would seem to be. This is not journalism.

    • Jonathan Neiderbach

      You really think that distributing public information is (or should be) a criminal offense? If you don’t think gun permits should be public information complain to your state legislator, not to those who access the public information. Information is made public for a reason, and that is to make it available to the public!

  3. Well if a gun is robbed from one of these homes and the gun is used in a murder, the journalist, the editor, and the CEO of the paper should be charged with conspiracy in a murder and jailed for 20 years. Likewise, tort law would be available to the family of the victim to sue the journalist, the editor, and the paper for 10s of millions! Maybe the people should publish the addresses of all journalists so that the people can identify where the unethical people live and do what they want.

  4. For all of those of you who are anti-gun, or fear guns, or don’t own one. If you live in the area on the map shown above, the criminals now know where you live. Since they have no fear of you (you have no way to self defend) they will now know who to attack. Is this a good thing? Then maybe you don’t mind being a victim of murder, rape, and assault, burglary, etc. in your own home. Criminals will most likely go to your house before a gun owners house – it is much safer for them – they know they will not be stopped by you. Remember, your call to the police, should you still be able to do so, will only be 20 minutes too late. That was the time it took for the police to show up at the school in the shooting scenario, after they were called. Also, the shooter had already committed suicide before the police arrived. No one to stop him… In addition, he did not legally buy the guns or get a permit – he stole them. So, if we take away guns from law abiding people, then only criminals will have them. How ridiculous is that? Go see the rising gun crime and overall crime statistics for countries such as Britain which have banned all guns. The gun death statistics for the US are the same as most countries in Europe (except those that have banned guns). Why? If you do not consider the ghetto areas of the US where illegal guns are used by illegal drug dealers to kill gang members over drug dealing (where gun crime is nearly 10 times that rate outside such areas) the rest of the country has a very low gun death rate. Look up the FBI statistics to confirm this for yourself.

    • Ollie, you have a bunch of errors in your post.
      The information was public long before the newspaper covered it. If a criminal wanted to use it, then they would have already been using it for the few years… The newspaper article wouldn’t have changed that. A criminal who plans his crimes out to that detail would also likely wait until no one is home, so what you are saying is basically a scare tactic.

      At Columbine, there were police on campus (the school had resource officers who were based on campus), and they couldn’t help a bit.
      The shooter in Conn, stolen the guns…from his mother whom he lived with. Her gun didn’t protect her, it killed her and over 20 kids.
      If it had been a less lethal weapon, it’s likely the guy would have killed less kids. On the same day, some guy went into a school in China and stabbed about 20 kids with a knife, none died.

      The gun death rate in US is at least 4 times as high as any country in Western Europe.

      And there is plenty of solid research that shows more guns =more crime.

      And even in those ghetto areas that to seem to have written off, there’s plenty of innocent people that get shot.

  5. First they require a permit to exercise a constitutional right. Then they say since you applied for a permit it is public information. Then a liberal publication makes a political statement vilifying law abiding citizens for exercising their constitutional rights. Brilliant.
    I wonder if a conservative publication published a similar map of women that have had abortions there might be a similar reaction from the liberal hand wringers.

  6. Publishing the map was a shocking act of moral indiscretion. It put law-abiding gunowners at risk, it put those without guns at risk equally as well. And in the end it proved nothing because the number of handguns is dwarfed by that of longguns which don’t have to be registered. But the stunt was driven by a liberal belief that guns are bad. I’ve watched this paper for decades, and believe me they have a liberal worldview. And they haven’t repented either – they plan on extending that map as soon as possible. And I’m not surprise the guy from the clueless NYT sides with the paper. Has regard for journalism hit single digits yet?

    If they want to accomplish something, they could publish the names and addresses of the liberals that brought us a school system that can’t post “Thou shalt not kill” on its walls. Do we really not know why people today believe they can act on their feelings, no matter what the cost to others?

  7. Yes, of course, but in private matters like this it should NEVER be available… This is clearly the fault of the state, not the newspaper. States should not enact policy to keep track of the guns lawfully owned by the citizens.

  8. Hard to be objective on this topic so i’ll ignore the motives the paper had and the consequences of it’s actions.
    The data was obtained legally and is public and that means that gun owners accepted this fact when they applied for permits. They have no right at all to complain (they are supposed to know the law) and anyone , anywhere can do whatever they want with the data.
    What the newspaper wanted to achieve doesn’t really matter when answering the question in the headline. (Maybe they wanted to signal that it’s wrong for the data to be public, or they were trying to help burglars find safer “working conditions”.)
    Sure some journalists with standards would care if the data was used in a meaningful way, but very few have any standards nowdays so they should be outraged about 98% of what the press (TV included) publishes not just about this one.
    If it’s right or wrong for the data to be public ,that’s off topic.

    As for the FB incident it’s a user error don’t blame it on the system.If you dance naked in the middle of the street it’s not reasonable to expect not be seen by anyone, if you tell a secret to 100 friends it won’t stay secret, the online world is no different than the real world.

    • Larry Borsato

      Yes the information on permits is public, but I highly doubt that those applying for permits were providing informed consent to have their addresses published on a map in their local paper, just because they exercised their Second Amendment right.

      And I am completely unclear on how this map provides any positive value. Instead it seems intended to vilify and chastise permit applicants.

  9. Zachary Tumin

    There is no legitimate purpose served by publising reporters and eds data, except spite, which blogger Christopher Fountain acknowledges – to show them how it feels. Zero to the good, all bad – not unlike publishing cops’ home addresses, in my view. There is an entirely legitimate public interest in publishing names/addresses of permit holders – and they’ve all been named. However, carving such a broad swath creates potentially huge unintended consequences for some that no one would favor – exposing addresses of women permit holders under spousal orders of protection, for example. This suggests that some license holders’ names ought to be confidential no matter what, and reporters should be aware of such issues as they blast forth. On balance – I think social good rules – we grant the permits, we get to know to whom – and I vote for the transparency. Good will come of it as more mash-ups take place with the same data. But it needs doing more surgically.

  10. Stephen M

    I “Love” how you label Fox News a conservative news outlet, but fail to label the New York Time a liberal news outlet, you really show your own biases when you do this.