Too Much Information?

After the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, left 20 children and six adults dead, interest in gun ownership and gun regulation soared.

The Journal News, which serves Westchester and Rockland counties in New York, tried to provide its readers with information about the extent of gun ownership in its area. The newspaper published online a map showing the location of people who had permits to own handguns. A viewer could click on dots on the map to find the name and address of the permit holder.

The newspaper obtained the information from records that were publicly available under New York law, but many people, including law enforcement officials and political leaders, were outraged that the newspaper published the information. They said the story exposed law-abiding gun owners to attack and gave thieves information on where to steal guns.

The Journal News was widely criticized for publishing the information, and some of that criticism came from other news organizations that considered the publication irresponsible. The furor raised the issue of whether too much information about guns and gun ownership was available to the public.

The New York Legislature responded to the concerns by including limits on access to gun permit data in a bill imposing greater regulation on firearms.

The bill, which was passed into law, expanded the ban on assault-style weapons and limited magazines to seven rounds. It also prohibited the release of any information about gun owners for 120 days. After that, gun owners could opt out of having their information released to the public.

With passage of that law, New York joined a growing list of states where information about gun ownership is restricted. Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia deny access to all gun permit records. Ten more states, including New York, limit access. In several other states, legislators proposed restrictions on access to gun records.

The public-records fallout from the Sandy Hook shootings did not end with the New York law. Only a few months later, Louisiana, which already prohibited the release of gun-ownership information, made publication of the names or addresses of people with permits to carry concealed weapons a criminal offense punishable by up to six months in jail and a $10,000 fine.

The Sandy Hook shootings also led Connecticut to close records that had been public. A new Connecticut law allows government agencies to withhold photographs, videos and other records that depict the images of homicide victims. Governments also can withhold tapes or transcripts of 911 calls in which the condition of a victim is described.

Connecticut officials feared crime scene photos of the children and adults who had been murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School would become public through the Internet. Although newspapers and broadcast news organizations do not publish grisly crime scene photos, an independent blogger might.

The Journal News' use of New York gun permit records might have been irresponsible, and the posting photographs of murdered children online might seem revolting, but the ability of news organizations to access such information has value.

Several news organizations have used gun permit records and criminal history records to show that people who have been convicted of felonies have been able to obtain weapons the law prohibits them from having. Other news organizations have used autopsy photos or crime scene photos to investigate police misconduct and unsolved crimes. Closing public records will make it more difficult for reporters and the public to know what government is doing and how well it is doing its job.