A hue and cry to tighten up gun regulations followed the heart-rending school massacre in Newtown, Conn. In short order, New York State passed a bold new gun control law last week. Although the urge for a swift response was understandable in the wake of so many senseless deaths, hurried actions can lead to unforeseen consequences. In the emotionally charged atmosphere after the December shooting, legislators shoehorned language into the new law severely limiting public access to the state’s handgun permit records, notably, without allowing for a public comment period. At best, this was a wildly overreaching response to the publication of handgun ownership records by one suburban newspaper; at worst, it may represent a disturbing impulse to reign in public records in an age when it is remarkably easy for anyone with a computer or a smartphone to frame data online.
The Deadline Club, which is the New York City chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, supports open records. State legislators should not be in the business of closing off access to public records, especially not in a rushed manner without allowing for public comment.
Many journalists hold differing views on the editorial wisdom of publishing the names and addresses of handgun permit holders in Westchester and Rockland counties by The Journal News, the local daily newspaper owned by Gannett. Although The Journal News removed these names from its website on Friday, in a reaction to the new law, the publisher issued a full-throated defense of the decision to publish the names and addresses of private citizens in the first place. Although this information was in the public domain until last week, a provision in the new state law allows handgun permit holders to ask to keep their personal information private for a variety of reasons, some of which are arguably sensible, such as work in law enforcement. Their reasons may also include a vague wish to avoid “unwanted harassment,” which could make local officials the final arbiters of whether or not to make the information public.
In matters of such importance as the gun debate, the public needs more information, not less. Journalists should be able to search through public records to measure the impact of new gun laws; while citizens should be able to find out if their neighbors own guns. The Deadline Club wishes to join with other organizations that support open records in calling on the state to revisit this broad-reaching provision that would make thousands of previously public records private.
J. Alex Tarquinio
The Deadline Club,
The New York City chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists