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Newspaper sparks outrage for publishing names, addresses of gun permit holders

By KC Maas and Josh Levs, CNN
December 27, 2012 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: The publisher issues a statement supporting the decision
  • Other news agencies have published similar databases in the past
  • Poynter Institute senior faculty member calls newspaper's move "journalist arrogance"
  • "Readers are understandably interested" in gun data, newspaper editor says

(CNN) -- An interactive map showing the names and addresses of all handgun permit holders in New York's Westchester and Rockland counties has infuriated many readers since it was posted Saturday on a newspaper's website.

The map, published by The Journal News, allows readers to zoom in on red dots that indicate which residents are licensed to own pistols or revolvers. It had prompted more than 1,700 comments as of Wednesday morning.

Blue dots indicate permit holders who "have purchased a firearm or updated the information on a permit in the past five years."

"So should we start wearing yellow Stars of David so the general public can be aware of who we are??" one commenter wrote.

"This is crazy!" wrote another.

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Some of those responding threatened to cancel their subscriptions or boycott the publication.

"I hope you lose readers now," one wrote.

The paper's publisher, Janet Hasson, president of the Journal News Media Group, defended the decision in a statement Wednesday.

"One of our roles is to report publicly available information on timely issues, even when unpopular. 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," she said.

The newspaper also said it had wanted to publish even more information.

"We were surprised when we weren't able to obtain information on what kinds and how many weapons people in our market own," the newspaper said in a statement.

County clerks' offices had told the paper that "the public does not have the right to see specific permits an individual has been issued, the types of handguns a person possesses or the number of guns he or she owns," the statement said. "Had we been able to obtain those records, we would have published them."

The map came about in the wake of the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, The Journal News said.

"In the past week, conversation on our opinion pages and on our website, LoHud.com, has been keenly focused on gun control," the newspaper's editor and vice president, CynDee Royle, said in a statement Tuesday.

The names and addresses of the two counties' permit-holding residents were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The website notes that the map does not indicate whether the residents own handguns, only that they are legally able to, and that the data do not pertain to rifles or shotguns, which can be bought without a permit.

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Still, hundreds of residents were shocked to see their information posted without their being notified. Some said the map would prompt burglaries because thieves are now aware of where weapons might be found.

"Now everyone knows where the legal guns are kept, a valuable piece of information for criminals," a commenter wrote. "Why don't you do something helpful, like trying to find out where the illegal guns are kept?"

A great majority of readers commenting at CNN.com were opposed to the newspaper's move, but some defended it on the grounds that the public has a right to know who might own weapons.

One commenter wrote: "If you're a gun owner it's a matter of public record. If you're embarrassed by your gun, get rid of it. I have a car and a house -- they're no secret. People contact me all the time trying to sell me stuff. I don't expect a right to privacy for these things."

Another wrote, "Every gun manufactured, transferred, and sold should be on the internet, all on one website, including date of purchase, current owner, stored location, and gun license number."

Several Twitter commenters also came out in support in tweets to CNN:

-- "The gun permit maps are an effective way of showing how horribly widespread gun ownership is."

-- "please thank them. This could be a turning point. I do not want my daughter playing in a house with guns."

-- "LOVE the Gun License map! Excellent information to anyone concerned with who they live around!"

The Journal News argued that residents have a right to access information regarding weapon holders in Westchester and Rockland communities.

"Our readers are understandably interested to know about guns in their neighborhoods," Royle said in her statement.

In an article about the uproar, The Journal News says many of the thousands of people who "have taken to their computers and phones in rage" live outside the counties covered by the map.

In searching through hundreds of comments listed on the website, CNN did not immediately see any in support of the newspaper's decision to publish the interactive map.

The Journal News said it published an article in 2006 that received similar responses, but this time around, social media spread the story far and wide.

In 2007, roanoke.com, the website of The Roanoke Times, published a list of Virginians licensed to carry concealed weapons, and then deleted it the next day. The paper explained that the list, originally published as part of an opinion column, was removed "out of concern that it might include names that should not have been made public."

The Poynter Institute, a school for journalists, notes that some other news agencies have published various types of databases as well.

"Publishing gun owners' names makes them targets for theft or public ridicule. It is journalistic arrogance to abuse public record privilege, just as it is to air 911 calls for no reason or to publish the home addresses of police or judges without cause," Al Tompkins, a Poynter senior faculty member, said in a statement Wednesday. "Unwarranted publishing of the names of permitted owners just encourages gun owners to skip the permitting."

The paper said Royle was not available for interviews Wednesday.

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