Wick Communications

Unconcealing weapons permits

In Ethics on December 27, 2012 at 9:31 pm

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Can you go too far with this whole freedom of information thing?

That is the question in the Lower Hudson Valley of New York after the local Gannett newspaper published the names and addresses – along with a Google map – of every local citizen with a pistol permit. The map was generated after the tragic shooting in Newtown, Conn., and as part of a national conversation about gun violence and gun control.

The Journal News and lohud.com compiled the information from public records across three home counties. By state law, the information is available to anyone who requests it.

But the information available from the state isn’t in this form and this form is something we need to talk about.

Information like this is available for many populations. Most of us can ask for names and addresses of sex offenders. You may be able to get such information on parolees in your neighborhoods. You know you can get real estate transactions, political contributions and certain tax information.

So why not create an attractive, user-friendly map like this? It clearly draws traffic; The Journal News has gotten hundreds of comments about the map. Aren’t we in the business of distilling information on pressing topics of the day? …

These are familiar questions for Wick Group Manager David Lewis.

That’s because nearly 24 years ago a misanthrope named Patrick Edward Purdy killed five schoolchildren at the Cleveland School in Stockton, Calif. The drifter and ex-con used a Chinese assault rifle called a Type 56 to spray 106 rounds in three minutes. In addition to the dead, 30 others were injured that day.

At the time, Lewis was publisher of a small weekly newspaper in Auburn, Calif., which is about 200 miles away.

“After the school killings, I met with our editor and city editor (who had been at the paper longer than either the editor or me) to discuss what coverage, if any, we should do,” David wrote in an email to me. “We concluded that we should write about California’s concealed weapon permit law and do a balanced several-part news series we would call ‘Armed in the Foothills.’

“A few days later, we were barraged by calls and letters demanding to know why we didn’t support the Second Amendment,” he said. The reason: The local sheriff tipped off his constituents that the newspaper’s city editor had filed a Freedom of Information Act request for concealed weapon permits.

David says he met with the sheriff and they worked out a compromise. The city editor got to see the permit information and make some notes but the sheriff wouldn’t have to release all the names.

“We had a reporter write stories on the matter with the sheriff, and the agreed-upon outcome. That helped with public opinion,” David wrote. “A couple weeks later, we ran a four-part, two pages per day series (with graphics and national perspectives, too) that gun-loving friends admitted was fair and balanced with all perspectives. I think we did our First Amendment job of enlightening and informing.”

David offered a few suggestions for anyone facing a “ticklish news story.”

  • Be clear about what you are doing and avoid surprising top editors and the publisher.
  • Anticipate the response of readers.
  • Keep a lid on your plans until you are ready to divulge them.

David and I agree that we wouldn’t seek to package the names of law-abiding citizens who have gun permits. Speaking for myself, I just don’t see the point. I think the information in aggregate is intriguing. I might work out a deal with the sheriff to see the permits and let him know that we didn’t plan on printing names and addresses. But I can imagine a map showing neighborhoods with more and less such permits. It might be interesting to say how many permits are held by men vs. women. I might even mention public figures with concealed weapons permits (though I would have to think about that one a bit more.)

We should all be thinking about coverage of events like the shootings at Sandy Hook and gun violence generally. These are matters of pressing national and local concern and everyone is talking about these issues.

— Clay

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  1. In Salinas, California, in the late 1980’s, we went over the list of those with concealed weapons permits in Monterey County. We published the entire list and had a few interesting sidebar stories. One story dealt with Clint Eastwood. On his application, he wrote that he needed a concealed weapon because he was kidnapped many years earlier and was driven in a van to San Francisco. After several hours, he was returned to Carmel and dumped. Outcry against the newspaper was muted, probably because the gun nuts were not as outspoken at the time.

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