The White Plains Journal News's map of pistol owners in Westchester and Rockland counties is on the way from media stunt to legal battle now that Putnam County is refusing to give the paper publicly available information on its registered pistol owners. The county says it's refusing the paper's request in the name of public safety. The paper says the law is on its side and there's no public safety exception. Already this sounds like a conversation we've heard before, in the capitol buildings of the seven states that even require handgun legislation.
Putnam County Clerk Dennis Sant is the one telling the paper it can't have the information, and he's doing so with the support of leaders on the county and state level. His argument is that providing the information with the knowledge that it will be added to the paper's map would knowingly endanger gun owners, including judges and police officers who may have vengeful people seeking them out. Per the Associated Press:
While anyone can come into his office and file the necessary paperwork to request information on individual permits, Sant said the difference is that the Journal News plans to publish the information in a way that makes it accessible to everyone, instantaneously.
"First of all, it tells criminals who doesn't have a gun," he said. "It gives a burglar or it gives a thief a map."
This is similar logic to that used by the Illinois State Rifle Association when it successfully persuaded that state's legislators to make the names of registered gun owners private in 2011. "We have (privacy laws) for medical records … anything that could be used to do harm to the public should be kept secure," ISRA director Richard Pearson told the Associated Press. It was a similar situation, too, as the law was passed after the state police refused to release the names of gun owners to the AP. Now, New York State Sen. Greg Ball wants to introduce similar legislation here, Reuters reported. It's an effort he's made before, unsuccessfully.
The Journal News, for its part, has declined most requests for comment, but publisher Janet Hasson said in a statement last week: "We felt sharing information about gun permits in our area was important in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings." On Thursday, New York Publishers Association president Diane Kennedy made the straightforward legal argument to the AP: "The existing law doesn't have exemptions in it. It says this information is subject to FOIL." But Kennedy was sure to point out that "editors may debate whether the Journal News should have published the database."
One problem with the Journal News's coverage, as Poynter's Al Tompkins pointed out last week, is that it doesn't really do much except name names. There's no analysis or insight to go with the map. And if Ball finds success with his renewed plan to get the personal information of gun owners made private, nobody else will have a chance to do that analysis either.