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N.Y. county declines to release names of licensed gun owners

A map published by Lohud.com indicates the addresses of all handgun permit holders in Westchester and Rockland counties in New York.
A map published by Lohud.com indicates the addresses of all handgun permit holders in Westchester and Rockland counties in New York.
(Lohud.com / Google maps)

It’s not exactly the kind of gun battle you’d see in movies -- with advertiser boycotts instead of bullets, threatening reader comments instead of gunfights, and public officials ready to defy state law.

Putnam County, N.Y., officials have said they would refuse to release the names and addresses of the county’s licensed handgun owners to the White Plains, N.Y.-based Journal News.

The newspaper, part of the Gannett chain, stoked national outrage after publishing an online interactive map on Dec. 22 detailing such gun owners in two other New York counties -- all public information.

Such a refusal would set up a legal showdown that the paper might win in the short term but could provide impetus for closing gun records in the future. County and state officials have scheduled a news conference for Thursday.

Of late, the battle over the right to bear arms has not only intersected with possession but, almost as frequently, with privacy.

On its face, the fight in New York isn’t as much about the flow of guns as it is the flow of information, which plunges the conversation down a now-familiar path: The 2nd Amendment was written in a time before semiautomatic weapons, just as it was written in a time before Facebook, which made the newspaper’s online map of local gun owners a global sensation.

“This is clearly a violation of privacy, and needs to be corrected immediately,” New York state Sen. Greg Ball said in a statement released Tuesday. “The same elitist eggheads who use their editorial page to coddle terrorists and criminals are now treating law-abiding citizens like level three sexual predators.”

The Journal News has said that readers have a right to know who is licensed to own a handgun. County officials -- with the backing of Ball, who is expected to support legislation changing the state’s open-records law for gun owners -- called the publication of such names and addresses unethical.

The state government’s top open-records official, however, has warned that any refusal to hand over the names and addresses by county officials would be illegal, making the county potentially liable for attorney fees should it lose the case in court.

It’s a battle that began after the Newtown, Conn., massacre, in which Adam Lanza used his mother’s guns to kill her at their home and 26 others at Sandy Hook Elementary School. That attack renewed the debate over gun control as public support for stiffer gun laws has reached its highest point in years.

But, as is common among the nation’s patchwork of gun laws, publication of gun owners’ names and addresses would not have been allowed in Connecticut, even though the state has some of the nation’s strictest gun laws, including an assault-weapons ban. Before the school massacre, you couldn’t have found out whether the Lanza family had guns, due to confidentiality provisions included in a 1994 gun control bill as a concession to pro-gun-rights lawmakers.

In New York, the names and addresses of handgun owners are public record, per state law and per Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state’s governmental Committee on Open Government.

“There’s not a lot of room for interpretation, in my opinion,” Freeman said in a phone interview. “My hope is that cooler heads will prevail and that the officials in Putnam County will in fact read the law.”

The statute on handgun permits in New York states, “The name and address of any person to whom an application for any license has been granted shall be a public record.” State law also says that officials can be docked for attorneys’ fees if a court finds they had “no reasonable basis for denying access.”

Freeman’s committee is mandated to give a nonpartisan interpretation of the state’s open-records law. When asked if his office had been contacted by Putnam County officials, Freeman replied, “Nope.”

MaryEllen Odell, Putnam County’s executive manager, refused to budge on her position when presented with Freeman’s reading of the law.

“According to that statute, which was written at a time before social media and computer information is at the level it was at, what we’re saying is, do better,” said Odell. “Just because it’s the written word right now doesn’t mean that we can’t modify it so that the law doesn’t jeopardize the safety of our residents.”

She also argues that denying the Journal News’ request has a “reasonable basis.”

“We have women right now that have orders of protection that have permits that are now absolutely terrified. You have law enforcement officials [on the list] who are on the job who are worried about their families’ safety. There’s a lot of collateral damage here from one newspaper’s knee-jerk reaction from trying to capitalize” on the Newtown shooting, Odell said.

In its original story publishing the map, the News Journal cited concerns about the Sandy Hook massacre and calls by residents to broaden the state’s open-records law further. The paper has since stood by the map’s publication in the face of public outrage from across the nation. Local media reported that the paper has since hired armed guards.

“We believe the law is clear that this is public information and the residents of Putnam County are entitled to see it. We’re troubled that county officials have apparently switched their position since we first requested the information,” Journal News President and Publisher Janet Hasson said in a statement, referring to early indications in December that county officials would provide the names and addresses without opposition.

She did not respond to a message Wednesday seeking further comment.

The debate has also brought arguments from gun advocates saying that ownership anonymity protects gun owners and non-gun-owners alike, advancing the argument that publicizing gun ownership endangers everybody.

“Giving out the names and addresses of gun owners is like giving a Cabela’s catalog to an outdoorsman,” said Tom King, president of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Assn. “For all of the bad guys out there, there is a list of every single gun owner in these two counties, not only a list but directions to their house, but a Google map pointing to it, and that’s outrageous. What it also does is it gives the bad guys a catalog of all of the people who don’t have guns, who would be easy pickings to come in and rob a house.”

That argument was partially supported by a MIT/Carnegie Mellon study after a similar data dump in Tennessee, in which researchers found that burglars started shifting to non-gun-owning areas after publication of gun owners’ names.

New York state Sen. Joseph Griffo, a Republican, has sponsored a bill to limit the availability of gun records to requests made specifically by name, but stopped short of calling for full confidentiality like in Connecticut. He wasn’t sure that the backlash over the Journal News’ map could overcome the shift in public opinion that has followed the Newtown massacre.

“I think it’s a little more complicated,” Griffo said. “I think the nation as a whole, state by state, and communities are dealing with these issues. ... Ordinarily, I think there would be an outcry … but then you look at others saying we want mapping, we want to know where things are.”

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