Sunday, January 6, 2013

To print, or not to print (the personal details of gun owners)

So here I am again, talking about guns. Thus far I've looked at some of the outrageous responses to gun crimes, mostly from the right-wing; I've looked at some of the more disingenuous means of avoiding a real discussion of gun control (by blaming teachers, unions, women, video games, etc. or focusing on small subsets of gun violence while ignoring the overall trend). Now I'm going to focus on something on the other end of the spectrum: “outing” gun owners to their communities.

Recently a New York newspaper sought for printing detailed information about licensed gun owners in the area; the request was partially met – names and addresses, as required under the law – but a request for the number and types of gun were refused as being protected information. As a result, the newspaper ran interactive maps with names and addresses of those licensed to own a gun.

In an interesting turn of events, the outcry to this move was so loud that the newspaper felt it prudent to hire armed security guards; there have been no disturbances to date on the premises, but a variety of threats.

Aside from the fact that it seems a contradiction of principle to, on the one hand, out gun owners, with the strong implication being that it is dangerous to live around people who own weapons, and on the other, hire gun owners, let's be clear about one thing. The newspaper was absolutely within its rights to find and disseminate that information. It is legally available via a Freedom of Information request.

Some people have responded by comparing this to illegal requests. Ann Coulter, for example, had a litany of requests that she finds comparable, including publishing a list of women who have had abortions. This is simply Ann Coulter being Ann Coulter – which is to say, in no way a valid argument. It is illegal, under multiple laws, to release a patient's medical records in such a manner; gun licenses are part of the New York public record. (She also made ludicrous assertions that women who have abortion “get money from Planned Parenthood”, and demanded to know the name and addresses of people in rent controlled apartments as well as those of the newspaper's new guards. Not only is she missing the point, but I would also posit that she's missing more than a few marbles...but I digress).

Now, all of that said – that the newspaper is perfectly within the law to do as they have done, despite what some critics say – I would disagree that the decision was a wise one, for several reasons.

First, it causes harm and could stigmatize perfectly law abiding people for doing nothing whatever outside of the law. As I have pointed out in previous posts, many gun advocates are extremely reactive to the slightest hint of gun control – to absurd lengths. A mere mention of “gun control”, and the Hitler/Stalin/Mao memes are going about at lightening speed, the talk of tyranny and government dismantling the Second Amendment is all over the radio and, of course, Fox News, etc., etc. Acting as if law abiding gun owners are potential time bombs will only lend credence to such paranoia. Gun control isn't about stopping law abiding citizens from turning into mass killers; it's about keeping guns out of the hands of killers. The solution can and no doubt will impact law abiding gun owners (just as vehicular regulations affect all of us law abiding drivers, as well as the hit-and-run killers and drunk drivers; just as laws preventing us from owning hand held rocket launchers affect both the potential law abiding and law breaking owners), but the mindset should not be one of targeting gun owners because they are gun owners and therefore “dangerous”. This is not conducive to a respectful conversation about gun control, and will only cement the aversion to reasonable discourse on the topic. While perfectly legal, I think this does more harm than good.

There's another aspect to this as well that I find troubling. An easy-to-access map like this alerts a would-be criminal to the whereabouts in the neighborhood of gun owners. That's bad for two reasons – bad for the unarmed neighbors, whose documented lack of arms might make them a more tempting target to criminals (keep in mind that thieves will often choose homes where little resistance is expected, going so far as to avoid houses where they know that a small dog lives; this will simply alert them to the fact that there is one type of resistance, at least, that they do not have to fear); and bad for the gun owner, because now a criminal, say one who cannot legally acquire a firearm, interested in acquiring a weapon knows where to look (after the owner is gone, of course). Certainly, this information is not “hidden”, but neither is it highlighted in such a public, easy to access way (until now).

Which brings me to my final point...what is the benefit here? Some interviewed in response to the map indicated that they might choose to live elsewhere if they knew their neighbors were armed. I can see how that would be important to someone, in the same way that “gun free zones” are important...some people would prefer to live in a “gun free” neighborhood like I prefer to work in a “gun free” environment. It seems, though, to me a different thing to ask to be in a neighborhood where no one has a gun on their own property, or to stigmatize those who do, and to ask people to keep their guns off of yours*. It would also prove, in practice, a difficult goal to achieve, depending on the neighborhood you choose to settle.

I am, therefore, not particularly swayed that the good that could come of broadcasting this information outweighs the harm that could arise, and think the newspaper would have been wiser to avoid this particular foray into controversy. As Spiderman can attest, with great power comes great responsibility; and the power of the press is one of the greatest in our nation. It must, therefore, be exercised wisely. Treating law abiding citizens as pariahs is neither wise nor responsible.

*Now, in fairness, I should note that I look at this situation with a rural, Central WI mindset. For me, I would be surprised if any of my neighbors did not have a gun in their home. My exposure to guns is pretty significant, starting from childhood, and has informed my opinion about what is and isn't dangerous. Gun ownership does not trigger any sort of warning to me. But that is not the case for everyone, and perhaps that accounts for some of the difference in opinion. I still hold, however, that the potential for actual harm versus actual benefit is greater in this instance. 

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