Approximately 44,000 people in three counties near New York City possess permits to own handguns. A local newspaper -- the Journal News of White Plains -- reported this fact two days before Christmas, making a point that the number of potential handgun owners constituted "one out of every 23 adults" in the area.
In the online version of the story, the Journal News also published an interactive map with the names and addresses of these permit holders. The map was destined to make the story explode in the media and across the blogosphere.
More on that in a minute, but first some Alaska perspective. Nobody knows how many people in Alaska own handguns because no permits are required, but it is clearly a lot more than one in every 23. Personally, I know only one non-journalist (that's saying something right there, isn't it?) who doesn't own a handgun, and he grew up in Great Britain.
Handguns are everywhere in the 49th state. If you have the slightest doubt, visit the Russian River at the height of the red salmon season, when the bears trained by fishermen in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service make their annual appearance.
A footnote here for those unfamiliar with the Russian: The U.S. government, to make life better for human anglers, once built "fish-cleaning stations" along the river. Fishermen fileted salmon at those stations and then threw the carcasses, which contained fat-rich brains and sometimes fat-rich eggs, back into the river. The idea was that the carcasses would help nourish the ecosystem in the same way as the salmon that naturally spawn and die.
It was a good idea. But the law of unintended consequences dictated something different. Grizzly bears, being first-class scavengers, quickly found a new prime food source. The bears started visiting the carcass piles near the cleaning tables. Mother bears taught baby bears and generations of bears learned to look for food there. So even though the tables and the carcass piles are now gone in the name of public safety, the bears keep coming back, which is why a goodly number of anglers to go the Russian armed.
Holsters numerous as running salmon
This is your government at work. It created a dangerous situation; the public responded by making it less dangerous, or more dangerous, depending on one's point of view, with all those armed people prowling the Russian. To date, no one has been shot, but several bears have died. Some have been killed with handguns. Bear spray is arguably safer and better, but Alaskans, like most Americans, have something of a love affair with guns.
Carrying a handgun for bear protection is common all over the state despite the fact most handguns lack the stopping power to knock a charging bear off its feet. It doesn't matter. The threat of bears makes handguns as ubiquitous as summer mosquitoes in the 49th state. I once had occasion to dispatch a moose on Rabbit Creek Road in Anchorage after someone ran into it with an automobile. The moose had suffered two broken legs and serious internal injuries. There was nothing that could be done for it but to watch it suffer until it died. I'm not big on watching animals suffer, but I didn't have a gun. So I started asking for around for one. The second driver to stop at the scene produced a 9mm Glock, which he volunteered despite his stated belief, "I don't think it will kill a moose." The 9mm is not a powerful cartridge, but it will kill a suffering moose shot in the head from three feet away.
Guns are useful tools in Alaska. Why people in the suburbs of New York own them, one can only guess. Some might be competitive shooters. Some might be hunters; "handgun hunting" has become something of its own sport. The Journal News -- a Gannett publication -- reported that in one county 6,900 permit holders claimed hunting as the reason in their permit paperwork. Most permit holders, almost twice as many, said they needed a handgun for "target shooting," but there is apparently no category for self-protection, which is likely why most of these people want a handgun.
Thus it was sure to cause a stir when, along with writing about how many permit holders there were in the area, the Journal News published their names and addresses, both in the newspaper and online. People already worried about getting robbed are not made more comfortable by someone putting their name and address on an interactive map. Handguns are valuable targets for thieves because criminals will pay top dollar for them.
Self-defense and the usual clichés
Janet Hasson, the newspaper's publisher, defended the newspaper's story in a written statement full of the usual clichés:
Frequently, the work of journalists is not popular. One of our roles is to report publicly available information on timely issues, even when unpopular. We knew publication of the database (as well as the accompanying article providing context) would be controversial, but we felt sharing information about gun permits in our area was important in the aftermath of the Newtown (Conn.) shootings.
A variety of publications report she is now hiding from reporters. The written statement has become the normal and (excuse the language here) chickenshit response of many in the journalism business when faced with a criticism these days. In this case, it is somewhat easier to understand than in others because the story written by reporter Dwight R. Worley is journalistically so hard to defend. It opens graphically in this way with an anecdote about illegal guns:
In May, Richard V. Wilson approached a female neighbor on the street and shot her in the back of the head, a crime that stunned their quiet Katonah neighborhood. What was equally shocking for some was the revelation that the mentally disturbed 77-year-old man had amassed a cache of weapons -- including two unregistered handguns and a large amount of ammunition -- without any neighbors knowing.
The story then proceeds to discuss the number of legal guns in the area. There is no mention of how many illegal guns might be on the streets as well, or how Wilson got his, or even how many mentally disturbed individuals might have access to guns, but there is an emphasis on scare-the-pants-off-the-ignorant detail. Worley writes, "... officials in county clerk’s offices in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam maintain the public does not have a right to see such things as the specific permits an individual has been issued, the types of handguns a person possesses or the number of guns he or she owns -- whether one or a dozen."
One can only guess he has been watching too many of those movies in which the actors go crazy blasting away with a handgun in each hand. Maybe he doesn't understand how ineffective that technique is. The U.S. military goes to great lengths to train troops to avoid the temptation to "spray and pray," as it is commonly called, because that is a waste of ammunition.
You hit targets with a firearm -- whether a handgun or long gun -- by aiming at them. Even with the largest of targets, there is a lot of room around them to miss. Ask any hunter who has aimed at something as big as, for the sake of argument, an Alaska moose only to see it walk away unscathed. Given this simple reality of shooting, it really doesn't matter how many guns any one permit holder owns, because you can only effectively use one at a time.
Pick your poison
Now, one could make some journalistically strong arguments for a story about gun ownership in New York counties if the story were done right. An economic analysis of who owns these permits would, I'm sure, show that they belong predominately to those in the upper-middle and upper classes. I doubt that if you're a wealthy elected official or businessman fearful of a home invasion you'd have any trouble getting a handgun permit. I wonder if it is the same for poor people or middle-income people -- Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties being short on poor people.
Of course, the poor folk could just buy a shotgun, a better home defense weapon, as the Journal News story reports in this roundabout way:
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."
One can only guess that the "laws that allow" guns would be the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which the Supreme Court decided in a landmark case allows individual gun ownership even in gun-control-happy Washington, D.C. And the "types of deadly weapons that might be right next door" is apparently referencing only firearms and not all the other deadly weapons next door -- knives, baseball bats, or best of all ... the family automobile.
If you want to kill someone in this country -- and get away with it -- run over them with your car. The crime is rarely prosecuted if you can make it look even remotely like an accident. And even if you are prosecuted, you'll almost certainly get off with a light sentence. Prosecutors in Alaska wanted to send a young woman to jail for a year after she ran over and killed a man because she was busy texting on her phone rather than watching the road. A judge, somewhat surprisingly, rejected the plea agreement, saying the penalty wasn't enough for killing someone.
Motor vehicles are clearly dangerous weapons that make neighborhoods less safe for you, your children and especially your pets. More than 40 percent of the law enforcement personnel who die in this country each year are killed in motor vehicle accidents. Too many of the rest are killed with guns, but some sleuthing by the Washington Post revealed that more than 40 percent of those deaths might be attributable to illegal guns.
'Gun problem' might be not enough legal ones
Just how dangerous are the legal handguns in the Journal News circulation area? It's impossible to say because of the newspaper's shoddy reporting. The newspaper doesn't report how many legally permitted guns in the area have been used in crimes or, for that matter, in self-defense. It is possible, as anti-gun activist Thompson claims, that guns make neighborhoods less safe. It is also possible, as my Alaska neighbors seem to believe, that guns make neighborhoods safer.
The magazine The Atlantic made the latter argument in its December issue in a story titled "The Case for More Guns (And More Gun Control)."
An East Coast magazine, it obviously couldn't avoid tacking the latter qualifier onto the headline, even though the story itself was described in this way: "How do we reduce gun crime and Aurora-style mass shootings when Americans already own nearly 300 million firearms? Maybe by allowing more people to carry them."
The story was published before the horrible attack on an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., reopened the gun-control debate. The story focused on the simple reality of the gun problem -- if one wants to call it that -- regarding random attacks on innocents in this country.
Jeffrey Goldberg writes:
...Gun-control efforts, while noble, would only have a modest impact on the rate of gun violence in America. Why?
Because it’s too late.
There are an estimated 280 million to 300 million guns in private hands in America -- many legally owned, many not. ... America’s level of gun ownership means that even if the Supreme Court -- which ruled in 2008 that the Second Amendment gives citizens the individual right to own firearms, as gun advocates have long insisted -- suddenly reversed itself and ruled that the individual ownership of handguns was illegal, there would be no practical way for a democratic country to locate and seize those guns.
Goldberg then explores at some length the option of putting guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens. This idea is regularly dismissed as dangerous by the American intelligentsia living primarily on the East Coast, all of whom are way smarter than you or me. They are of the belief that citizen involvement would only make things worse. It's largely the argument inherent in reporter Wilson's approach to his story: The more people who legally own guns, the more chance someone will get shot.
Goldberg's reporting, on the other hand, weighs the risks of gun ownership against the benefits of a competent, armed citizenry.
"In 1997, a disturbed high-school student named Luke Woodham stabbed his mother and then shot and killed two people at Pearl High School in Pearl, Mississippi," Goldberg writes. "He then began driving toward a nearby junior high to continue his shooting spree, but the assistant principal of the high school, Joel Myrick, aimed a pistol he kept in his truck at Woodham, causing him to veer off the road. Myrick then put his pistol to Woodham’s neck and disarmed him. On January 16, 2002, a disgruntled former student at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Virginia, had killed three people, including the school’s dean, when two students, both off-duty law-enforcement officers, retrieved their weapons and pointed them at the shooter, who ended his killing spree and surrendered. In December 2007, a man armed with a semiautomatic rifle and two pistols entered the New Life Church in Colorado Springs and killed two teenage girls before a church member, Jeanne Assam -- a former Minneapolis police officer and a volunteer church security guard -- shot and wounded the gunman, who then killed himself."
Goldberg makes a pretty strong argument for putting guns in the hands of responsible citizens.
"Today," he writes, "the number of concealed-carry permits is the highest it’s ever been, at 8 million, and the homicide rate is the lowest it’s been in four decades -- less than half what it was 20 years ago. The number of people allowed to carry concealed weapons is actually considerably higher than 8 million, because residents of Vermont, Wyoming, Arizona, Alaska, and parts of Montana do not need government permission to carry their personal firearms. These states have what Second Amendment absolutists refer to as “constitutional carry,” meaning, in essence, that the Second Amendment is their permit."
What's black and white and gray all over?
Alaska did at one time require concealed carry permits. The law was repealed at the behest of then- state Rep. Eric Croft from Anchorage, a liberal Democrat. Alaska, go figure. Or maybe Croft understood what Goldberg later reported.
That the Journal News story failed to make note of any of these gray areas surrounding the gun debate might account for a fair bit of the blow-back that followed publication, including one blogger doing to Journal News reporters and editors what they did to handgun-permit holders.
"Blogger Christopher Fountain retaliated against a New York newspaper, which recently published the addresses of local gun owners, by publishing the addresses and phone numbers of the newspaper's staff" is how The Huffington Post reported the last turn of events. Fountain quickly came under attack from other bloggers.
"Please note," one of them piously wrote, "that while I correctly am pointing out that Fountain’s breach of these individuals’ privacy is wrong, irresponsible and unfair (for example, how does he know that all the staff members were involved in or even aware of the decision to post the permit owners’ addresses?), I am NOT publishing his address on a map, so militant ethicists can come and do God knows what to him."
The obvious suggestion in the last sentence is that one of the permit-holders will now try to murder a Journal News employee.
All of which led another blogger to suggest that the problem in American today is as much with the First Amendment -- freedom of speech and of the press -- as the Second. David Rollins wrote:
What he (Fountain) did just put more people in danger, which means he's no better than the newspaper he's ranting against. As a lawyer, he should have pursued some legal retaliation instead.
However, I think that in both cases we are missing the bigger picture. Both the Journal News and Christopher Fountain were able to post those names and addresses simply by submitting a Freedom of Information Request, so my question is, how much individual privacy should we as Americans expect? Is nothing we do sacred or personal anymore? Is everything now open to public scrutiny by anyone willing to fill out a form?
Yes, by God, that's the solution: Let's slide an even bigger shroud of secrecy over what government does in this country.
Quick, make a tourniquet
And why stop there? Why not restrict the flow of a whole lot of information? How about we simply stop local media from publishing crime news? Too many television stations and websites thrive on the idea that, as they say in the business, "If it bleeds, it leads." What does this add to our society? Think of how many people were needlessly upset by news of the Newtown massacre, something that really had nothing to do with the town in which they live or with their children.
And now, of course, we're in the midst of another debate about gun control in a country in which -- as Goldberg notes -- the gun-crime rate is at a 40-year low.
All of which only serves to prove once again that former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was and is right in complaining about America's lamestream media, even if she is clueless as to why. The media are flawed in the same way Palin is flawed. They are reactionary rather than thoughtful. They lean toward hysteria rather than insight. The News Journal is a perfect case in point.
It published a story on guns so poorly reported as to be meaningless. There was no attempt at the sort of analysis that might bring meaning or understanding. So 44,000 people own permits to carry guns. How many of them have used those guns to commit crimes? One, 100, none? Have any of these permit holders used those guns to protect themselves or their neighbors? Is there some other problem with these guns? Have they been involved in accidental shootings or suicides? If so, how many?
How many crimes in the area involve legally permitted handguns versus illegal handguns? Are there illegal handguns in the area? Are they involved in crimes? How do would-be murders like Wilson get them?
More reporters and more guns in the right hands?
I could go on. I won't. But I will add this: One thing I have always believed is that the answer to bad reporting isn't less reporting, but more.
And that belief forces one to consider the argument made by Goldberg. There are so many guns in this country now that we're not going to get rid of them. Maybe the answer to too many guns is also more guns, or at least a move to push guns into the right hands to discourage those with guns already in the wrong hands. What the Journal News should be doing is trying to figure out whether those 44,000 guns make its circulation area more dangerous or, God forbid, safer.
Did that happen because of the gun ownership, or in spite of it, or for reasons totally unrelated? The answer to that might make the debate about legal gun ownership in the Journal-News circulation area much to-do about nothing. But then again, much to-do about nothing has become something of a media norm in the country these days.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.