Over the weekend, the Journal News published interactive maps that identify all pistol permit holders in New York’s Westchester and Rockland counties.
Gun owners are furious, as are people who don’t particularly care for guns but who love privacy.
And so we’re dragged into a debate about gun ownership, privacy, and press freedom.
Can the Journal News staff do what they did? Certainly. All of the information is public, as they repeatedly point out. Should they have done it? Almost certainly not.
People are arguing that criminals will make use of this information, choosing to burglarize houses that aren’t on the list and are thus undefended or choosing to burglarize houses that are on the list during the day in order to steal the guns while their owners are at work. Other people are arguing that it’s a vindictive and reactionary violation of people’s privacy, as no one is publishing interactive guides about any other personal property ownership and that gun ownership shouldn’t be stigmatized.
The Journal News staff argues that it’s providing a public service to its readers, that there’s a value in knowing which of your neighbors have a pistol permit. This is pretty much the only argument that makes sense for them, as there’s really no other reason to do what they did beyond simply drawing attention to their newspaper’s website.
Sadly, they’re wrong in their claim.
There’s no public service here because what they’ve highlighted doesn’t matter. This is true for two reasons:
1. Their information is radically incomplete, as the Journal News points out. The maps only include people who have pistol permits, but this could also include a bunch of people who don’t actually own guns. It could also leave out some people who don’t have permits. Having a permit is a requirement if you want to legally own a pistol … but not everyone who lives in these counties legally own pistols and not everyone who got the permit went on to buy the gun. And the maps don’t include rifles or shotguns. These can be purchased without a permit.
2. Knowing whether or not my neighbors have pistols doesn’t make a whole lot of difference to me. It doesn’t make me safer and it shouldn’t necessarily make me warier of the neighborhood in which I live or specifically of kindly old Mr. Johnson next door who has a permit. That is, unless someone wants to argue that there is no legitimate reason for someone to own a pistol. The Journal News staff doesn’t want to make that argument; in fact, the only argument they make appears under someone else’s name and it’s nothing but an anecdote about one person’s personal belief that all guns are always unsafe:
“I would love to know if someone next to me had guns. It makes me safer to know so I can deal with that,” said [John] Thompson, whose group counsels youths against gun violence. “I might not choose to live there.”
Knowing that someone next door has a gun doesn’t actually make Thompson safer; it might make him feel that he is safer for knowing it, but that’s a different story. This is just the opposite argument of the one that Wayne LaPierre floated on “Meet the Press”, that gun owners say they are safer because they have firearms in the house. LaPierre is wrong and so is Thompson; one’s personal feelings about safety don’t amount to facts about safety.
It’s no secret that I don’t like guns. But neither am I someone who thinks gun owners are all wingnuts who are stockpiling guns to protect themselves against the government (which is why I frequently lampoon those who are doing this) or to murder their neighbors. If you want to think seriously about ways to put a brake on gun deaths in our country — apart from arming everyone, which is the NRA position — simply publishing a list of (some) (potential) gun owners isn’t going to help.
HT: Anonymous Question Asker.