Lost in the controversy over the Westchester newspaper that published a map of local gun owners — and now in Gawker's followup move to do the same for New York City — is that these lists... are publicly available. Turns out, it's the debate that comes next that might matter more than angry gun advocates.
The story of the Journal News has been just as well documented as its initiative to out gun owners in counties of upstate New York: threats at the homes of reporters, deliveries of mysterious powder, the works. But from the beginning, its papers editors have insisted that the information has been publicly available. Gawker writer John Cook, in explaining his publication of a 446-page list of New York City gun owners based on a years-old Freedom of Information Act request, explains that publishing such a list is actually quite easy when legislation like New York's requires gun owners to register with local and state police departments:
But if it's addresses you want, look no further: New York pistol owners must register not only with their local police departments, but with the state as well. And the names of 1.2 million New Yorkers licensed to own handguns, and the addresses of 300,000 of them, have been freely available online for more than two years. Two databases listing all of the handgun owners were initially posted online anonymously at a web site called Who's Packing NY in August of 2010. That web site is no longer working, but a mirror—complete with the two full databases available for download—is still working here.
So why did the Journal News have to hire armed guards? And why did Gawker just lose the word "assholes" from its headline, then watch death threats come its way, too? Perhaps the anger there was a wee bit misguided, with ire directed at the re-publication of gun information rather than at the government's position to have it public in the first place. Cook notes that "it's clear that many of the Rockland County and Westchester County gun owners who are outraged at having their addresses plastered on the internet have had those addresses plastered on the internet for years without it causing a problem."
But as data journalism professor Steve Doig told The New York Times in a story about the Journal News this week that "[t]he backlash, very typically from this, is for legislators to try to close up the access to this type of data." Indeed, the Putnam county clerk's office denied the Journal News's request to expand its map, and several more may follow suit.