Routine requests for public records have become anything but routine for some newspapers these days.
For the third time in as many months, a newspaper has faced an angry backlash, including threats of violence, after it sought government data on local gun permit holders. In the two most recent instances, the newspapers rescinded requests for the documents amid the outcry, with one issuing an abject apology to its readers and the local sheriff for daring to seek the information in the first place.
The news media's attempts to access gun-ownership records has 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 following the Newtown, Conn., shootings of 20 children and six adults 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 In a published note to readers, he said the newspaper had withdrawn its application and apologized to Lovin.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 combat veteran of the first 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.
But amid calls for an advertiser and reader boycott, as well as anonymous threats, the paper canceled its request.
Media advocates cast the issue as one of public safety, arguing that disclosure enables people to know who on their block or in their neighborhood is armed. That could guide parents in making decisions about where their children play or with whom they associate.
"It's a reasonable thing to want to own a gun, so I don't understand the logic that naming [a gun owner] somehow shames or demonizes them," said Geneva Overholser, director of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. Instead, such information "could normalize gun ownership" by showing it to be routine and ordinary.
Moreover, she said, "Why does it invade privacy if a person is doing something legal? I don't discount the discomfort [of being identified in the newspaper], but if we never printed things that people didn't want in the paper, the paper would look like Swiss cheese. I think we should champion the reasons that it's worth doing this."
Overholser said she was saddened by the silencing of the newspapers that sought public records: "Do we as a nation feel comfortable with a newspaper being forced to collapse in the heat of . . . such a vengeful and threatening response? Is that a good way to determine what we should publish?"
The White Plains, N.Y., Journal News drew national attention in late December when it published a list and online map of all handgun permit holders in two counties. The paper's reporters received death threats in the wake of publication, leading the Journal News to station armed guards at its headquarters.
Dwight Worley, a Journal News reporter who wrote a story accompanying the data, said the paper's staff continues to receive occasional threatening emails and phone calls about the map, but he said that "things have calmed down."
In the wake of the controversy, he said, "you're seeing a real chilling effect on access to public records. People are having to apologize for accessing public information, and that's crazy. [The Journal News is] not on a campaign to demonize gun ownership. . . . We never intended to tell just one story. We're telling many stories [about guns] from different perspectives."
One upshot: New York's state legislature passed a law last month enabling gun permit holders to keep their information confidential.