by Paul Gallant, with David B. Kopel and Joanne D. Eisen
America's 1st Freedom, May 2007. More by Kopel on gun owner privacy.
On the morning of Dec. 10, 2006, I awoke to find that my wife and I had been "outed" by my local newspaper.
In New York state, although the list of concealed-handgun license (CHL) holders is public information by law, that information remains below the threshold of general awareness. That is, until The Journal News, part of the Gannett chain, posted 30,000 names and towns of local licensed handgun holders on its website.
I believe that government has no business creating lists of those who choose to exercise a constitutional right. However, these lists do exist, and laws in some states have made them publicly accessible. I also believe that a free press needs to act in a responsible manner while exercising our cherished First Amendment rights.
I do not hide my handgun ownership, and anyone who has read The Journal News over the last dozen years has seen my frequent pro-gun "Community View" columns. Yet my wife and I were shocked and frightened by the publication of our locale, and I quickly found out that other licensees had the same reaction. Now, any thief who wanted a gun could easily find out where the local supplies are. How ironic, since the paper is always calling for more restrictive gun laws that would help "keep guns out of the hands of criminals."
Newspapers in Ohio, Texas, Florida, Colorado and South Dakota have also "outed" Right-to-Carry licensees.
The outings may make some homes more likely to be targeted by burglars, especially when the occupants are gone; criminals may reasonably expect that a CHL holder is likely to have additional guns at home.
In addition, the outings raise the risks for people who don't have CHLs, especially when those people are in public places. When a CHL list is published, a criminal, such as a stalker, can be confident that his intended victim, if not found on the list, will not be legally armed in a public place.
In a report for the National Institute of Justice, criminologists James D. Wright and Peter Rossi studied the attitudes of incarcerated felons. Their research was later published in the book Armed and Considered Dangerous. The researchers asked the felons (in an anonymous written survey) if they agreed with the statement, "A smart criminal always tries to find out if his potential victim is armed ..." Eighty-one percent responded "yes."
Thus, when gun ownership information is private, even people who do not own guns are made safer. In a "shall-issue" or "may-issue" Right-to-Carry state, if criminals do not know who has a carry permit, they face the deterrent factor that almost any potential victim might be armed. In a "shall-issue" state, the risk can be quite significant.
Similarly, the fact that a person's gun ownership in the home is still not public knowledge makes everyone safer from home invasion burglaries (aka "hot burglaries"). Because potential burglars cannot tell which homes possess guns, most burglars choose to avoid entry into any occupied home for fear of getting shot.
In fact, the entry pattern of American burglars contrasts sharply with that of burglars in other nations where firearm possession is lower. In Canada and Great Britain, burglars prefer to find the residents at home, since alarms will be turned off, wallets and purses will be available for the taking and the likelihood of being shot is minimal.
One reason that Britain's home invasion burglary rate is nine times higher than America's is that British law has reduced legal gun ownership to only four percent of the population; legal guns must be locked, with ammunition in a separate safe; and any victim who uses a gun against a criminal is very likely to be prosecuted.
After The Journal News endangered public safety through the irresponsible publication of the CHL list, I began trying to find out the newspaper's motive. The editors' rationale for outing gun owners was that the CHL lists were inaccurate, because the county clerks were negligent in their responsibility to ensure that the guns of deceased licensees were disposed of properly. Yet The Journal News hardly needed to publish a list of every single CHL holder in order to address a problem involving a tiny fraction of obsolete licenses.
Arthur H. Gunther, III, is the recently retired op-ed editor of the Rockland County edition of The Journal News (the county where I reside). During his tenure as editor, he was scrupulous about publishing both sides of the firearm issue in op-eds and letters to the paper.
"That is bad newspapering," Gunther said of the publications outing of carry licensees. "The names of deceased permit holders could have been printed after cross-checking the Social Security death index. While the information is public on licensees, there was utterly no point in invading one's privacy. It goes beyond gun ownership. It speaks to civility and privacy and good journalism, too."
In Fort Wayne, Ind., The News-Sentinel conducted a poll prior to making its decision about outing Right-to-Carry licensees. One of the paper's concerns was that parents should be aware of the storage habits of firearm owners in the homes where their children visit, as suggested by the anti-gun American Academy of Pediatrics.
When the newspaper surveyed its readers, the paper was informed of a situation in which one licensee was living a reclusive, secretive life because of fear of a violent ex-spouse. If the paper published the CHL list, the woman's life would be endangered. The newspaper's final decision was in favor of the immediate safety of that one woman, and thus against publishing the list.
As opposed to the careful approach of the Fort Wayne paper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer relied on pure prejudice to make the publishing decision. On Jan. 12, 2004, columnist Connie Schultz declared "We Will Reveal Those Who Conceal," expressing irrational fear of people who dared to get a carry permit.
Schultz stated: "Your average citizen--not to mention your not-so-average raging ex-spouse and disgruntled employee--can carry a hidden weapon around any street in the state ... As a parent, I want to know who's armed in my neighborhood ... So what can you do to keep your family out of firing range? ... We journalists will find out for you. That's not a threat."
Perhaps that bigoted diatribe was not meant as a threat. But it is was irresponsible for The Plain Dealer to unnecessarily place prosecutors, judges, district attorneys, retired cops and abused women into potential danger.
Contrary to the mean-spirited imaginings of Schultz, Right-to-Carry permit holders are an unusually law-abiding collection of citizens. In Florida, for example, license holders are about 300 times less likely to perpetrate a gun crime than Floridians without licenses. The pattern is similar in other states with "shall-issue" and "may-issue" Right-to-Carry laws.
That result should not be surprising. A person could carry a concealed handgun without a license and, unless he gives himself away by committing some other offense, he would never be caught. Hence, license applicants tend to be those citizens willing to pay a substantial cost in time and money in order to comply with a law they could easily break with impunity. Only a minuscule percentage of CHL holders ever lose their permit because of a firearm-related offense.
Another rationale that some journalists have used for invading the privacy of permit holders is that publishing gun owner names and addresses or locales is analogous to publishing names and addresses of convicted sex offenders. But according to a 2003 report from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, within five years of being released from prison, 43 percent of convicted sex offenders are rearrested; five percent are rearrested for another sex crime. The most reliable method of predicting criminal behavior is a prior history of criminal behavior. Right-to-Carry permit holders have NO criminal history--convicted sex offenders do! It's frustrating for law-abiding gun owners to be lumped in with such an illegal segment of society.
I suspect that there is also another factor behind the media attacks on gun owner privacy. As the firearm prohibitionists continue losing ground (especially with the spread of "shall-issue" laws), the same media types who hate gun owners are becoming increasingly frustrated. Consequently, they are lashing out to hurt us in any way they can think of.
Americans own more guns than ever before, and now in 40 states, any law-abiding, responsible adult can obtain a permit to carry a handgun for self- protection. Anti-gun media extremists are on the wrong side of history, although they can still endanger many people when they act irresponsibly.
Tracy Warner, editorial page editor of The Journal Gazette (Fort Wayne, Ind.), was revealed by the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel in 2004 to be among those who had received a Right-to-Carry permit.
Just as do I, when Warner gets upset and angry, he resorts to the keyboard. He quickly dashed off two articles--one an anti-gun diatribe, the other containing the reason he got a carry permit and handgun. With a reputation of being anti-gun, he needed to explain in a column in his own newspaper the reason he obtained a carry license.
He stated: "Nearly four years ago, after a column I wrote, I received death threats that included disturbing references to my family and descriptions of my home and property ... I became a gun permit holder with reluctance ..."
However, in the other article, on a different page in the same edition, he noted and dismissed the legitimate research that shows the net benefit to society of civilian firearm possession. Warner concluded: "Common sense suggests that the more guns on the street, the more wrongful injuries and death."
Yet, Warner wants his gun. He asks the question, and answers it as well: "Will Buckeyes feel safer? Those with guns might."
After admitting that he believes his own gun might tend to increase violence in general, and that firearm possession might not afford safety, he did not relinquish his gun. Warner still wanted the best method he could think of to protect himself and his family.
He ended his explanation: "Sometimes you do what you have to do."