First Posted: 1/13/2013
That, in a word, is how you feel when someone broadcasts your home address without your knowledge, against your wishes. Your correspondent speaks from experience. Six years ago when white supremacists published my home address and phone number on their websites, the first thing I felt was vulnerable.
The folks at the Journal News newspaper in New York state would doubtless say it was not their intention to do anything like that when they published online maps of gun ownership in their area. But intention and effect are two completely different things.
The maps show dots covering two suburban New York counties — Westchester and Rockland — like a rash, one for each of the 33,614 persons who is licensed to own a handgun there. Had it been the intention of the paper simply to illustrate the ubiquity of guns, those graphics would have done the job nicely.
But the paper did not stop there. Click on any one dot and up comes the name and home address of the gun owner in question.
Gun owners nationwide have been furious ever since the maps went up a few days before Christmas. They have a right to be.
Mind you, they have no right to send threatening notes, or packets of white powder (later deemed harmless) to the newsroom, no right to harass employees of the newspaper, as some have done. Such behavior lends new meaning to the term gun nuts. But, that said, yes, they do have a right to be angry.
The paper has confronted the storm of controversy, including a call for an advertiser boycott, by pointing out that the information it published is not private. As reporter Dwight R. Worley (himself a registered gun owner) noted in an accompanying article, Anyone can find out the names and addresses of handgun owners in any county with a simple Freedom of Information Law request.
But that, again, misses the point. There is a qualitative difference between information that is public in the sense that anyone who is so inclined can go dig it out, and information that is public because it has been broadly publicized.
Would you publish a database of people who have filed for bankruptcy? People who have been foreclosed? People who have tax liens? Or would you say this information, while public, has no news value; tells a reader nothing he needs to know and does so at a price of discomfiting some law-abiding citizen, putting their business in the street?
Yes, it can be argued that guns are different because, while legal, they also embody legitimate concerns for personal safety. But it can also be argued that if you really want to know if your neighbor has a gun, you can ask — or, if that is not an option, you can look it up.
The Journal News database seems an act of excess, the sort of thing that is done because it can be done, with little thought given to the consequences of the doing.
And if one consequence is that some New York state gun owners feel exposed, the larger consequence for all of us is a further chipping away of private spaces, a further compromise of the increasingly quaint idea that one has a right to live peacefully and an expectation to not be bothered in so doing.
This is not about freedom of the press or freedom to own guns. It is, rather, about the freedom to be left alone, and whether that's still sustainable or whether henceforth we must all live exposed. The technology being what it is, it's worth remembering that the answer to that question, whatever it might be, will be shaped both by journalists and by those who are not.
Consider that, while some gun owners vented their anger by making threats and sending baking soda in the mail, others expressed themselves more pointedly. They posted home addresses for Journal News employees online.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FL. 33132. Readers may write to him via email at [email protected].