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Letter From The Editor

Should a newspaper print the names of handgun owners?

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By now, you've no doubt read about the brouhaha surrounding The Journal News, a New York suburban daily newspaper that recently published the names and addresses of every handgun permit owner in Westchester and Rockland counties and put a map of the gun owners' home locations online.

The story was called "The Gun Owner Next Door: What You Don't Know About the Weapons in Your Neighborhood." The article provoked predictable outrage from local gun owners, who felt unfairly targeted and exposed for doing something that is perfectly legal.

The outrage was followed by a national movement to boycott advertisers in Gannett newspapers (The Journal News' parent company). And things quickly got uglier. Personal information about employees at the paper was posted online, including addresses and information about where their children went to school. Some reporters got threatening emails. Two packages containing white powder were sent to the newsroom. The paper had to hire security guards to protect its offices.

Did the newspaper cross a line it shouldn't have? The newspaper's defense is that the information that was published was readily available to the public. Anyone wishing to know the names and addresses of permit-carry holders could access that information through state records. The newspaper merely made it more easily accessible.

Locally, that same kind of information is available to all of us via the Tennessee Department of Safety's census data. The Commercial Appeal even has links to the information on its website. For the record, there are more than 44,000 permit holders in Shelby County, and their addresses are available via public records. But I think there's a clear difference between letting the public know how to access such information and publishing it in toto in a newspaper.

I think you can easily make a case for publishing, say, the names and addresses of sex offenders, information that is also available online. You can even type in your zip code and find out if any such offenders live near you. I've signed up for a daily email from the Memphis Police Department that lets me know what crimes were committted within a half-mile of my house. Knowing where criminals live and having knowledge of crimes that happen near your home makes sense. But I think "outing" legal gun owners in a wholesale fashion is, pardon the expression, overkill.

Bruce VanWyngarden
brucev@memphisflyer.com

Editor's note: You can sign up for the MPD "Cyberwatch" program here.

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