The dangers of private gun records

Note: The New York legislature today was poised to approve bills that would prohibit disclosure of the names and addresses of gun owners in the state’s registry and allow citizens to avoid disclosure on county-held registries. This story has details. – GM, Jan. 15, 2013

In the wake of the Sandy Hook school shootings, the suburban New York Journal News late last month published names, addresses and a nifty interactive map to the homes of licensed handgun owners in the Lower Hudson Valley.

The News Journal's interactive map that has some arguing to close gun records to public view.

The News Journal’s interactive map that has some arguing to close gun records to public view.

The ensuing understandable, if overwrought, furor has driven at least one New York legislator to say he’d introduce legislation to make New York gun ownership information private.

While it may seem a smart answer, making public records private may result in more public harm than good.

An insightful blog last week from Michael Luo of the New York Times helps explain why more government secrecy isn’t the best punishment for this perceived journalistic crime.

As journalists, most of us understand the sensitivity of publishing names, addresses and a veritable road map to the homes of anyone. Widespread exposure of such information incites fear or worse these days; our days of comfort with anything remotely resembling a phone book are long gone.

That said, following the typical NRA argument that “an armed society is a polite society,” it’s hard to buy the claim that listing these homes makes them more likely to be targeted by handgun thieves. It’s possible, but not likely.

That’s not to defend the journalism. There are plenty of journalistic endeavors that we all think we’d do differently, better or more appropriately. I’ll defer to those editors about the decisions they made. I won’t condemn them.

For those who do, however, the move to shield gun records from public view to avoid journalistic excesses should consider what else gets hidden along with the gun records.

Luo points to his year-old story about gun laws in North Carolina. It’s a state that he points out is among a decreasing number that keep licensing information public.

In comparing a database of the gun owners with one of those convicted of crimes, he found that 2,400 were convicted of felonies or misdemeanors (not including traffic offenses) over five years. He found 200 were felonies, including no fewer than 10 deaths caused by murder or manslaughter.

His report doesn’t (nor does the lohud.com report) indict gun owners in general — these numbers reflect a tiny percentage of the number of permit holders. Obviously, people who don’t license their guns and people who don’t own guns commit plenty of crimes as well.

That’s not at all the point.

What’s truly worrisome is that in about half of the felonies by licensed gun owners, the state authorities neither revoked nor suspended the licensee’s permit.

There apparently was no clear process by which licensing authorities were notified of an offender’s conviction. He found that government wasn’t doing it’s job.

Luo analyzed records in North Carolina because they helpfully turned over the information. Access to those records is becoming more and more rare. Hopefully Luo’s report has prompted some action to tighten those processes to make sure that gun owners convicted of serious crimes aren’t legally allowed to carry.

It’s just one example of what else may be hidden with the gun records. If gun records are kept secret, we’ll never be able to find out if, among other things, gun owners are targeted for extra scrutiny.

Government, as we know, often does a lousy job of policing itself, much less others. That’s one reason the press exists — to watch over what government does.

And what the press can’t see, the press can’t analyze. If history is a guide, records shielded from view never open up again. If my 20+ years of watching the Freedom of Information Act in Michigan is a guide, it just doesn’t happen that way.

So before everyone jumps on the bandwagon to conceal gun records from public view, consider how much power you’re putting in the hands of government.

The media — all journalists — make mistakes. And publishing addresses and an interactive map may or may not have been one.

But before you react hysterically and support hiding this information for eternity, consider the unintended consequences of turning out the lights on more public records.

It likely just ensures we’ll be that much more in the dark.

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