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The following article was posted on May 1st, 2013, in the New Times - Volume 27, Issue 40 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from New Times [newtimesslo.com] - Volume 27, Issue 40

Who's got the gun?

A note from the executive editor

BY RYAN MILLER

New Times has the names of all 476 county residents who currently have a concealed-carry permit.

So why didn’t we print them?

Other papers across the country have been publishing such information—from simple lists of names to maps showing the location of every gun owner in a certain area—drawing praise from First Amendment advocates and, more often, harsh criticism from Second Amendment advocates. The conversation is obviously more complex than that, but the opposing arguments can essentially be reduced to this:

In support of publishing the list of names is the idea that the information is public, available to anyone who wants it. Typically, that means any person can file a Freedom of Information Act request with the sheriff’s department and then receive this list within 10 days. The addresses are available, too. The information is relevant, timely, and freely accessible. Wouldn’t you like to know who’s packing as you’re walking downtown?

On the other side is the question of what publishing the list accomplishes. Some of the action’s more vocal detractors have assumed that journalists publicizing the information are liberal, anti-gun advocates seeking to shame and penalize law-abiding citizens. These critics say that even though the information is technically public, putting it in such an easily accessible form somehow encourages people—criminals, probably—to target unsuspecting residents who’ve done nothing more than what they’re allowed to do by the Constitution.

Reducing the reasoning behind choosing to publish the names to some sort of campaign against gun owners is naïve at best. At worst, such an argument is deliberately obtuse rhetoric that does little to cast positive light on vociferous gun advocates as reasoned debaters.

Some angry citizens have “turned the tables” on the editors and writers by publishing information about them, including names, addresses, and photos of their houses. Such a stunt goes far beyond the idea of turnabout being fair play and has resulted in threats of harm coming to hard-working journalists seeking to educate the world. It’s bullying, plain and simple, made worse by the fact that the people perpetrating it are doing so because they first felt bullied. They’ve been wronged, they argue. So they, in turn, are doing the same thing in response.

So why didn’t New Times print the list?

I believe that simply printing a list of names is a disservice to our readers and—more specifically—the people on that list, because it comes without context. We know nothing about most of these people. Why do these concealed-carry permit holders have their permits? Do they even have guns?

I could pick one name at random, and all I would know is that the person had been officially approved by SLO County Sheriff Ian Parkinson to carry a concealed weapon if he or she chose to do so. Is this person someone who regularly carries large amounts of cash? Is this person someone who brags to buddies and shows off? Is this person elderly, or a victim of past abuse?

While researching the issue in the midst of writing this piece, I came across an essay by the amazing David Carr, writing for The New York Times about The Journal News’ decision to publish a map with the names and addresses of people who had applied for handgun permits in a certain region.

“Publishing is a discrete act, separate from whether something is public or not,” Carr wrote in “Guns, Maps, and Data That Disturb,” published Jan. 13. “Our job as journalists is to draw attention, to point at things, and what we choose to highlight is defined as news. And then it is our job to create context, talk to sources who bring insight and provide analysis. Given that, simply pointing out that something is public as the sole reason for republishing it is not a sufficient justification.”

He concludes: “We live at a time when data of all kinds can be unleashed with very little friction; part of the value of the news business comes from making sense of it all.”

In Matt Fountain’s story on concealed-carry permits in San Luis Obispo County, Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian said that, as a public figure, he doesn’t mind his concealed-carry information getting out.

Yes, he is a public figure. But the bulk of the people whose names are on the list are not. They are private citizens with private reasons for applying for a concealed-carry permit—reasons that we don’t have the resources to unearth. And without those reasons—without, really, the knowledge of whether these people indeed even have a gun, concealed or otherwise—publishing the list is little more than an invitation to speculation.

A good newspaper’s job is to provide the public with information. A great newspaper does so, but goes beyond that by framing the information with useful context in its pages.

New Times often publishes information that is distasteful to the public. We’ve been criticized for casting light on subjects no one else was illuminating, and we have stood firm in our belief and resolve that our decisions are for the good of the community, that we are creating an educated and informed electorate who can apply the information we provide toward a better world—whether in exercising power at the ballot box or in monetary support or in personal improvement, etc.

I believe New Times is a great paper. I also believe that publishing a list of names of concealed-carry permit holders would not be “making sense of it all” to our 100,000 readers. Doing so would answer a question that perhaps some people are asking (Who, exactly, has the county given such permission to?), but it would raise more questions we haven’t sought to answer in our pages.

All this being said, and mindful of journalistic giant Carr’s thoughts on the difference between the discrete act of publishing and of information being public, the folks at New Times understand that not everyone has the time, resources, or knowhow to access the public information available from the sheriff, and that an outlet such as ours does seek to promote the distribution of information. With the belief that readers who do want to see the list are doing so with the belief that it is a list—nothing more—New Times will furnish a copy to those who ask for one. Our thought is that people who truly want to get the information for their own knowledge will actively seek it out and find it, and that such people are doing so with forethought—as opposed to happening upon it in our pages and passively absorbing it.

Contact Executive Editor Ryan Miller at rmiller@newtimesslo.com.