As the fractious debate over the rights of gun owners versus the protections of American citizens escalates, those engaged in the battle seem to be raising (lowering?) the bar in ever-inventive – if incendiary – ways. The latest round takes us from Wayne LaPierre’s controversial “plan” to put gun-toting guards in every school, Ron Paul’s response to that plan’s “Orwellian” nature; GOP strategist Frank Luntz’s poll revealing that the majority of gun owners (including NRA members) favor better gun laws, right down to David Sirota’s suggestion that it’s time to start profiling white males (who make up the majority of mass shooters).
The latest salvo, however, involves the “spit fight” going on between a newspaper publisher who posted a map of gun permit owners and a gun owner who retaliated by posting the addresses of that publisher and her entire staff, a potentially dangerous move considering the incendiary nature of this debate and some of the people having it.
The story starts with a map. In a report by CNN U.S. today, it seems the publisher of The Journal News, the local paper for Westchester County in New York, noted the intensity of the gun debate in the week following the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, and decided to up the ante with a controversial move: publisher Janet Hasson posted an article on the paper’s website called, “The gun owner next door: What you don’t know about the weapons in your neighborhood,” and included in the piece an interactive map with the names and addresses of gun permit owners in select New York cities in the Journal’s reporting area. The story led with this:
In May, Richard V. Wilson approached a female neighbor on the street and shot her in the back of the head, a crime that stunned their quiet Katonah neighborhood.
What was equally shocking for some was the revelation that the mentally disturbed 77-year-old man had amassed a cache of weapons — including two unregistered handguns and a large amount of ammunition — without any neighbors knowing.
“I think that the access to guns in this country is ridiculous, that anybody can get one,” said a neighbor of Wilson’s who requested anonymity because it’s not known whether the gunman, whose unnamed victim survived, will return home or be sent to prison. “Would I have bought this house knowing somebody (close by) had an arsenal of weapons? No, I would not have.”
And that sentiment, coupled with the horrors of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting – one perpetrated by a disturbed young man who simply accessed the powerful weapons legally owned by his mother – compelled the publisher to post the map; responding, in essence, to the question posed by the neighbor in the paragraph above. But even with that locational information, it’s impossible to know what kinds of guns are being purchased and stockpiled by one’s neighbors. Apparently, while it is permissible per the Freedom of Information Law for the public to know the names and addresses of handgun owners, they are not privy to what specific permits have been issued. Which, in the minds of some, leaves neighbors and townsfolk vulnerable to the kind of gun owner who could potentially be dangerous or have high-powered weapons accessible to someone else who may be dangerous, as was the case in Newtown.
Combined with laws that allow the purchase of rifles and shotguns without a permit, John Thompson, a program manager for Project SNUG at the Yonkers Family YMCA, said that leaves the public knowing little about the types of deadly weapons that might be right next door.
“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 Thompson, whose group counsels youths against gun violence. “I might not choose to live there.” [Source]
But while Thompson and others appreciated the information posted by The Journal News, the reaction from local permit owners, as well as gun aficionados throughout the country, was swift and fierce. Many felt it was a fundamental invasion of privacy; others were offended, feeling the map characterized gun owners as criminals and marginalized citizens. One outraged commenter wrote:
“So should we start wearing yellow Stars of David so the general public can be aware of who we are??” [Source]
The Journal News spent time talking to local people on both sides of the issue. Like anywhere else in the country, it seems the lines are drawn deeply between those who feel the greater good of a community trumps personal gun possession, while freedom-to-own activists and gun owners of all stripes run the gamut from resentful to outraged by the sense that they’re being painted with too broad a brush, based on the violent acts of a few.
Dave Triglianos, a Mahopac resident and certified gun instructor, said making all information on pistol-permit applications public would violate the privacy of law-abiding gun owners. He said that everyone, including gun owners, sympathizes with the Sandy Hook families but that onerous gun legislation and the disclosure of specifics only harm legitimate gun owners, not criminals.
My information “should be absolutely private,” said Triglianos, who is licensed to carry firearms and owns an AR-15 rifle, the same model of gun used in the Newtown massacre. “Why do my neighbors need to know that? I am not a threat to my neighbors. I don’t pose a physical threat to anyone.” [Source]
But not only did many owners feel their – or any gun owner’s –information should be kept private, one took his revenge, literally, in kind. TechCrunch.com reports on lawyer and blogger, Christopher Fountain, whose retaliatory measure is considered by some – given the circumstances – to be a dangerous one:
The bold move [the map] has escalated into a transparency arms race, after a Connecticut lawyer posted the phone number and addresses of the Journal‘s staff, including a Google Maps satellite Image of the Publisher’s home. “I don’t know whether the Journal’s publisher Janet Hasson is a permit holder herself, but here’s how to find her to ask,” read Christopher Fountain’s blog post. The double irony here is that open data was heralded as a tool of enlightened civic dialog, and has been co-opted for fierce partisanship, bordering on public endangerment.
“New York residents have the right to own guns with a permit and they also have a right to access public information,” said a defiant Hasson.
The Google Map sparked a debate about whether gun owners should be labeled like other potential menaces to society, “The implications are mind-boggling,” said Marine Scott F. Williams to The Journal News, “It’s as if gun owners are sex offenders (and) to own a handgun risks exposure as if one is a sex offender. It’s, in my mind, crazy.”
Blogger Christopher Fountain took the debate into his own hands, publishing the personal information of The Journals‘ staff. “Hundreds of thousands of readers; Janet, you have a great Christmas Eve.”
That last line – “Hundreds of thousands of readers; Janet, you have a great Christmas Eve.” – along with the release of Ms. Hasson’s address (as well as that of her staff) and the Google image of her home, translated to some as a veiled threat of retaliation, something that is surely not the intent of “open data” or freedom of information. But beyond the potential of danger for Hasson and her staff, a primary concern, what’s also disconcerting is that the debate appears to have sparked it’s own circling focus, deflecting the attention from the matter of sensible gun control to the ancillary matter of just how much information about gun owners is allowed and/or necessary to the general public. The particulars of the Newtown case – the types of guns, the killer’s mother laxness in keeping them secure – have raised some very valid fears of that unknown “killer next door,” causing some to believe it is their right, and in their best interest, to be aware of just who in their surrounds is “packing heat.” Even some who’ve protested the release of the map agree that gun owners do have an obligation to secure their weapons; a point brought painfully home by the Newtown murderer’s ultimate access to his mother’s cache.
But still, privacy and rights are the salient points to most gun owners. As some have angrily pointed out, they are not sex offenders obligated to reveal their whereabouts as mandated by law; these are, by and large, law-abiding citizens who are simply exercising their right to own guns.
Transparency, civil debate, personal rights, personal safety; all these will continue to be part of the dialogue as the debate continues. Hopefully, in the “fog of war,” no one’s life has been endangered by the willful exposure of the addresses of journalists pushing for greater gun controls and introducing some of that “transparency” of information to their readers. If Mr. Fountain’s retaliatory move were to result in a disgruntled gun owner responding with violence, it will be a tragic irony. Let’s hope the escalating battle doesn’t find its way there.