Just because a newspaper can print or post something doesn’t mean it should. Context is important.
When I was a reporter, I answered the phone one day, and a man threatened to shoot me. The coward did it anonymously, of course, and quickly hung up.
He was upset because I wrote some articles about how the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department refused to allow me to review concealed weapon permits, despite the fact that they were and still are public records.
I was reminded of this after a New York newspaper posted the names and addresses of registered gun owners in its coverage area. The information is considered public record in New York.
The outcry after the interactive database went live was predictable. Gun owners were livid, condemned the newspaper and posted names and addresses of the publisher, editors and reporters. The newspaper hired armed guards to protect its workers.
The newspaper said in the aftermath of the Newton, Connecticut mass shooting, where 20 children and six adults were murdered by an armed man who later killed himself, people had the right to know if their neighbor owned a gun. A nearby New York county has now refused to release the names and addresses of its gun owners, clearly ignoring state law.
Now while I understand the newspaper’s reasoning, I don’t agree with it. People could easily find out who owned a gun by asking for records themselves.
When I wanted to review concealed weapon permits, I wanted to see who was getting them and why. I wanted to see if the sheriff’s department was giving permits to any person who qualified under the law or just to campaign contributors and cronies. Was it even thoroughly investigating those who had applied? I never intended to post any information about who had a permit.
But I could have.
It’s silly that despite the fact that on the application to get a permit it stated it was a public document, people were shocked that someone from the public could and would review it. After throwing several roadblocks in my way, the department’s counsel eventually admitted that while the law was on my side, the county sheriff didn’t care. (I’ll leave aside the brazen position of the county’s top law enforcement officer deciding which laws to obey.)
Now New York gun owners and officials are acting the same way. Despite that it’s a public record, people are shocked that the public might want to actually see it.
Citizens want a government that is open and transparent. Sometimes that transparency is uncomfortable and even humiliating. But we have these laws, especially in California where transparency is enshrined in the constitution, to make sure our elected officials and its institutions are doing what they are supposed to be doing.
The people through their lawmakers might decide that gun permits and concealed weapon permits should be made private. But be prepared for what might happen. Maybe some counties decide that no one should get a gun or only a select few can. How would we know?
And I will add this: on the concealed weapons permit application there is a section on mental health. This should be very closely monitored. Maybe a person who threatens to shoot someone for looking at public documents shouldn’t have guns.