Last week, in the wake of the Newtown massacre, the Journal News in New York’s lower Hudson Valley published a map listing the names and locations of all the licensed handgun owners in the area. The rationale seems to be in this passage from the story:
Combined with laws that allow the purchase of rifles and shotguns without a permit, John Thompson, a program manager for Project SNUG at the Yonkers Family YMCA, said that leaves the public knowing little about the types of deadly weapons that might be right next door.
“I would love to know if someone next to me had guns. It makes me safer to know so I can deal with that,” said Thompson, whose group counsels youths against gun violence. “I might not choose to live there.”
The Atlantic’s reporter surveys the angry social-media reactions of area gun owners, and finds, unsurprisingly, that some of them are hysterical, paranoid, and enraged. I have to say that while the examples The Atlantic cites are crackpotty, I find myself more on their side than on the newspaper’s.
For one thing, I don’t for a second believe the newspaper’s idea was to inform its readers for the sake of greater safety. Given the timing and the public mood, it seems far more likely to me that its editors wanted to shame licensed handgun owners. Therefore, I think this project is a modified form of concern-trolling.
For another, I generally hate activists and journalists publicizing names and addresses of private citizens, especially amid an emotionally charged controversy. A few years back, some same-sex marriage activists in California created maps to the homes of Prop 8 supporters, using publicly available information. To underscore, they did not get this information illegally. As I recall, the Prop 8 backers had either donated money to the Prop 8 campaign, or signed a petition, or both. The point of the activism was to socially shame the anti-SSM people, and to make them feel threatened. If their friends shunned them, or protesters showed up in their driveways, or they went to bed at night afraid that someone might break in or do them harm … well, good, they deserved it (reasoned activists).
A big problem with this sort of thing is that it encourages vigilantism. Let’s say that there had been a gay-rights initiative in, I dunno, Alabama, and some group opposed to gay rights got its hands on a list of donors to GLAAD, or the Human Rights Campaign, or some other pro-gay group. What if they created a website listing maps to those donors’ homes? And what if some vigilantes decided to make life miserable for the people — gay or straight — who lived there?
Is that really the kind of country we want to live in? Similarly, I don’t believe these New York gun owners cited by the Journal News have a legal right to privacy, but I have to wonder what real good is done by publicizing their names and addresses in this way, especially in a time when the public is beside itself with grief over Newtown (which, for the Journal News, was a local story). Just because something is legal — as is publicizing these names and addresses, taken from publicly available sources — does not mean it’s a good idea.
I have always hated the tactic adopted by anti-abortion protesters, of showing up outside the homes of abortion doctors and staging demonstrations. I think the work abortion doctors do is repulsive and vile. But maintaining respect for the privacy of everyone, even those we consider wicked or some sort of threat to the common good, is necessary for the maintenance of civilized life. I don’t believe this is an absolute principle. There are cases when it’s more important to make this information public, as when a child sex offender moves into one’s neighborhood. But the presumption, in my view, must strongly rest with respecting the privacy of private citizens.