Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

January 13, 2013

HOPKINS: Paper was wrong to publish pistol permits

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Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — Every day journalists have a responsibility to report the news. It’s not something that is taken lightly.

Many stories are easy to put together, but sometimes there’s a lot of background work required — especially for in-depth reports — before the final product is produced. It’s a big responsibility.

But sometimes you have to be just plain responsible.

On Dec. 23, a newspaper serving the northern suburbs of New York City published an article about residents who hold pistol permits. Along with the story was an interactive map on the newspaper’s website that showed the names and addresses of every person in Westchester and Rockland counties who possess pistol permits.

Presumably, the newspaper published the permit holders as a matter of public service. I say “presumably,” because it’s also very possible that the paper published the names and addresses as a pure publicity stunt. One thing is for sure: What the White Plains-based Journal News did was irresponsible.

Except among colleagues and close friends, I generally keep my criticisms of news organizations to myself. Not this time.

Before I go farther, I want to make it clear that I support the rights of a free press under the First Amendment and I fully support freedom of information laws that make public records available to everyone. However, there is also a tremendous responsibility that comes along with using the rights granted by the First Amendment and the law

There are several reasons why I wouldn’t have — and the Journal News SHOULDN’T have — publicized the permit holders.

First and foremost, I believe the publication could put the lives of citizens in danger. The data posted includes names and addresses of active and retired police officers, judges, battered and stalked individuals, FBI agents and others. These are people who don’t want criminals they’ve sent to jail or from who they’re hiding to knpw where they live. People are supposed to feel safe in their own homes. Many in Westchester and Rockland counties had that comfort taken away from them by the Journal News.

Making the list available online gives burglars instant knowledge of homes where there are presumably no guns. It just might be more enticing to burglarize that home with the empty HDTV box sitting with the trash at the curb if a criminal knew there were no guns inside.

For that matter, certain criminals could also use the information to target homes with guns so that they may steal the weapons, which then could be used in the commission of other crimes, or for sale on the black market, especially if a burglar hits the jackpot and finds the home of a gun collector.

What did publishing these names and addresses accomplish? Was it supposed to make people aware that there are many weapons in their neighborhood? If so, what’s the big deal? Most law-abiding and responsible gun owners don’t broadcast the fact that they own weapons.

A permit is not required to own a rifle, and rifles can fire in rapid succession. Many of the deadliest shootings in the past 15 years have been committed by people who were not brandishing pistols, but rifles or other long guns. People with pistol permits have been singled out.

Posting the names and addresses amounts to a witch hunt and discrimination. The paper’s decision to publish the list suggests all gun owners are bad, which is simply not true. Maybe it was an intimidation tactic.

The Putnam County clerk has declared he won’t release the names of pistol owners in that county. He’ll lose because settled case law does not support him. At least he’s taking an ethical stand.

The Journal-News, since it put the names and addresses of law-abiding citizens — who happen to hold pistol permits — has taken plenty of heat from the NRA, police organizations and everyday citizens. It’s all deserved. There are certain ethical standards that should not be crossed.

The Journal News not only crossed that line, they thumbed their noses at it.