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US newspaper's gun permit map draws criticism

Publication of names and addresses of handgun permit holders in New York counties sparks outrage and online debate.
Last Modified: 27 Dec 2012 03:13
About 44,000 people in Westchester, Putnam and Rockland counties are licensed to own guns or rifles [Al Jazeera]

A US newspaper's publication of the names and addresses of handgun permit holders in two New York counties has sparked online discussions and a healthy dose of outrage.

The Journal News, a Gannett Co. newspaper covering three counties in the Hudson Valley north of New York City, and operating the website lohud.com, posted a story on Sunday detailing a public-records request it filed to obtain the information.

The 1,800-word story headlined, "The gun owner next door: What you don't know about the weapons in your neighbourhood," said the information was sought after the December 14 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, about 80km northeast of the paper's headquarters in White Plains.

A gunman killed his mother, drove to an elementary school and massacred 20 first-graders and six adults, then shot himself. All the weapons used were legally owned by his mother.

Safety concerns

The Journal News story includes comments from both sides of the gun-rights debate and presents the data as answering concerns of those who would like to know whether there are guns in their neighbourhood.

It reports that about 44,000 people in Westchester, Putnam and Rockland counties are licensed to own a handgun and that rifles and shotguns can be purchased without a permit.

It was accompanied online by maps of the results for Westchester and Rockland counties; similar details had not yet been provided by Putnam County.

A reader clicking on the maps can see the name and address of each pistol or revolver permit holder. Accompanying text states that inclusion does not necessarily mean that an individual owns a weapon, just who obtained a license.

By Wednesday afternoon, the maps had been shared about 30,000 times on Facebook and other social media.

Most online comments have criticised the publication of the data, and many suggest it puts the permit holders in danger because criminals have a guide to places they can steal guns.

Others maintain it tells criminals who does not have a gun and may be easier to victimise, or where to find law enforcement figures against whom they might hold a grudge.

Some responded by publicising the home addresses and phone numbers of the reporter who wrote the piece, along with other journalists at the paper and even senior executives of Gannett.

Publicly available information

Many echoed the idea that publicising gun permit holders' names is tantamount to accusing them of doing something wrong, comparing the move to publishing lists of registered sex offenders.

The Journal News is standing behind the project. It said in the story that it published a similar list in 2006.

"Frequently, the work of journalists is not popular. One of our roles is to report publicly available information on timely issues, even when unpopular," Janet Hasson, president and publisher of The Journal News Media Group, said in an emailed statement.

"We knew publication of the database [as well as the accompanying article providing context] would be controversial, but we felt sharing information about gun permits in our area was important in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings."

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