What impelled the Journal News — a little-known, small circulation newspaper in suburban Westchester County, New York — to publish a list of local gunowners, along with a map of their addresses? According to the New York Times:
Two weeks ago, the paper published the names and addresses of handgun permit holders — a total of 33,614 — in two suburban counties, Westchester and Rockland, and put maps of their locations online. The maps, which appeared with the article “The Gun Owner Next Door: What You Don’t Know About the Weapons in Your Neighborhood,” received more than one million views on the Web site of The Journal News — more than twice as many as the paper’s previous record, about a councilman who had two boys arrested for running a cupcake stand.
Was it outrage and a sense of civic duty? Did the Newtown massacre persuade the editors that a clumsy attempt at public shaming of people exercising a constitutional right would act as an effective deterrent to violence? The explanation offered by Dwight Worley, the Journal News reporter who came up with the idea, was more than a little oblique:
“The people have as much of a right to know who owns guns in their communities as gun owners have to own weapons.”
Technically, of course, he’s correct. The information is public record, and anyone who wants the data is entitled to see it. But we all have rights that we should try to exercise with some discretion. There is no law against farting in a elevator, but few people would endorse the practice.
Similarly, we question with some skepticism the benefit of providing all and sundry with a road map of this nature. The gunowners are hardly likely to dispose of their weapons as a result. Did the Journal News think they would? Or, less probable still, that expressions of disapproval from their neighbors would somehow coerce them into disarming? One suspects that gunowners are already well aware of the distaste many Americans have for firearms; when the Speaker of the House and the President go on national television and demand the nullification of the 2nd Amendment, it’s hard not to notice.
Here we await a mass condemnation of our own article as the output of a deranged primitive. But note that we have very carefully avoided taking any position on gun ownership. That is not where this essay takes issue. Our interest here is not with 2nd Amendment rights, but with 1st Amendment responsibility. We are somehow not impressed with the professions of the Journal News, which are more in the line of self-serving than public service, nor do we believe that their publication of this data was in any way driven by a desire for a better world. The New York Times noted in its article:
According to the Alliance for Audited Media, The Journal News, like many newspapers nationwide, has had sharp declines in circulation. Its total circulation from Monday through Friday fell from 111,536 in September 2007 to 68,850 in September 2012.
With no cupcake stands to defend, the Journal News did what any self-respecting publication in need of a shot in the arm would do: it took advantage of a national horror to sell newspapers. It cloaked itself in the traditional robes of righteous indignation. It pointed fingers. It said, “For shame! You are bad people!” And it got its wish, in a way. We doubt that it will see any meaningful real increase in readership from this silly little stunt, and we certainly don’t believe that it will have any impact whatever on gun owners, but when the Newtown event quickly morphed from a local tragedy into a global circus, it was only a matter of time before they sent in the clowns.