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Newspaper's Gun-Owner Database Draws Criticism

8:41 AM, Dec 26, 2012   |    comments
(GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)
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By RANDI WEINER The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. -- Thousands of people have taken to their computers and phones in rage after The Journal News posted an online database of local gun-permit holders.

The database, legally obtained from the County Clerks' Offices through a Freedom of Information Act request made after the shootings in Sandy Hook, Conn., that left 20 children and eight adults dead, has been called irresponsible, dangerous and leaning toward intimidation by online pundits.

Social media played a big part in the exponential spread of the story, whose map has been recommended more than 20,000 times. Two Facebook posts linking to the article on Sunday garnered 346 comments as of Tuesday evening. That's in addition to 167 comments posted directly to Facebook.com/LoHud since the article was published.

Numerous additional comments relating to the gun-permit map have appeared on posts in other unrelated articles. More than a dozen more people sent private messages via Facebook objecting to the map. The overwhelming majority of comments strongly object to the article.

The database also was mentioned in the Drudge Report, Memorandum.com, Breitbart.com, Thegatewaypundit.com, Instapundit, iOwnTheWorld.com and UrbanGrounds, along with Yahoo, ABC News and Fox News, among others.

More than 500 comments -- on both sides of the debate -- accompanied an article on CNN.com Tuesday.

The Journal News is owned by Gannett Co. Inc., which is also the parent company of multiple television stations (including WLTX,) and dozens of newspapers, including the USA TODAY.

Hundreds of callers have complained, claiming publication of the database put their safety at risk or violated their privacy. Others claimed publication was illegal. Many of the callers were vitriolic and some threatened members of the newspaper staff.

"New York residents have the right to own guns with a permit and they also have a right to access public information," said Janet Hasson, president and publisher of The Journal News Media Group.

Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government and an expert in the state's Freedom of Information law, has said all government records and data are presumed public unless a specific statute bars their release. Names and addresses are specifically deemed public records, he said.

This is not the first time The Journal News has been criticized for publishing information about gun permits. A similar article in 2006 received similar responses, although social media did not play as large a part in the spread of the article or of the complaints.

"We knew publication of the database would be controversial, but we felt sharing as much information as we could about gun ownership in our area was important in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings," said CynDee Royle, editor and vice president/news.

"People are concerned about who owns guns and how many of them there are in their neighborhoods," she said. "Our Freedom of Information request also sought specifics on how many and what types of weapons people owned. That portion of the request was denied."

Scott F. Williams, 41, of Haddon Heights, N.J., who served in the Marines as a rifleman, was one of the very few callers who agreed to identify themselves and comment on why they called.

"This is what I see," he said. "It's all in the context of the shootings in Newtown ... it gets us all talking about gun control. That people are at a heightened concern makes sense to me. I am a gun owner and a pro-Second-Amendment (person). I try to be rational." He called the newspaper's decision to link to the database "highly Orwellian."

"The implications are mind-boggling," he said. "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."

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