The news media’s attempts to access gun-ownership records have sparked debate over a central question: Do gun owners have a right to privacy, or does the public have a right to know about the guns in a community? The spate of episodes suggests the intensity of passions surrounding the issue after the shootings of 20 children and six educators in Newtown, Conn., in December.
The editor of a small newspaper in western North Carolina, the Cherokee Scout, resigned Tuesday after an angry reaction from readers over the paper’s request for records of people who have or have applied for concealed-carry weapons permits. The editor, Robert Horne, and members of his staff had been subjected to death threats after Horne wrote to Cherokee County Sheriff Keith Lovin two weeks ago seeking the records. Lovin declined to release the information and posted the request on his Facebook page, triggering public condemnation of the media outlet.
Although the paper said it didn’t intend to publish names and wanted the lists for more general stories about guns, its publisher, David Brown, later acknowledged “a tremendous error in judgment” in seeking the information. In a published note to readers, he said the newspaper had withdrawn its application and apologized to Lovin. “We had no idea of the reaction it would cause,” Brown wrote.
Horne, a Marine veteran of the Persian Gulf War, said in an interview that he was leaving his job and the region because of concern “about the safety of my family. I could not put my wife through this.”
Gun permits are public records in many states and counties, much like home sales, driver’s license data and voter-registration rolls. Government officials are required to make them available to anyone who seeks them. However, in some jurisdictions, the records are confidential.
Opponents of public disclosure of gun-ownership data say such information could demonize law-abiding people and jeopardize public safety. Widespread publicity about individual gun owners, they say, could lead to thefts of firearms or enable criminals to target neighborhoods and vulnerable people.
“This is like posting a sign on someone’s lawn saying ‘gun-free zone,’ ” said Mike Thibodeau, a Republican state senator from Maine. “We don’t need lists floating around of who does and does not have a firearm. It’s bad public policy.”
Thibodeau was a prominent critic of an attempt this month by the Bangor Daily News in his state to seek gun-ownership records. The paper said it didn’t intend to publish names but wanted the information as part of a reporting project on domestic violence and drug abuse. It made its inquiry in anticipation of the state legislature’s consideration of a bill to keep gun-permit information private, a bill Thibodeau said his party strongly supports.