Inside the Newsroom: Case for gun-permit listings trumps emotional opposition
By Chris Peck
Sunday, February 15, 2009
Misunderstandings with people who carry guns can turn ugly.
This past week it has been ugly at the newspaper, after passionate gun owners latched onto three very wrong ideas about why The Commercial Appeal's Web site now lists all those in Tennessee who have a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
-- Wrong idea No. 1: The newspaper is against the Second Amendment that gives Americans the right to keep and bear arms.
-- Wrong idea No. 2: The newspaper is invading people's privacy by posting the permit-to-carry-guns list on its Web site.
-- Wrong idea No. 3: Posting the list is empowering criminals.
The Tennessee Firearms Association and others have fanned the frenzy against our Web site posting of the permit-to-carry list. Pro-gun groups orchestrated a protest campaign that has spread nationwide. By late last week, Commercial Appeal executives were receiving as many as 600 e-mails a day, along with dozens of phone calls at home, at work and on their cell phones. Maps to their houses, with ominous warnings, had been posted online.
Our crime? Putting up a Web-only database that allows people to search by name or ZIP code for those who have a permit to carry a concealed weapon in Tennessee. The list came from the Tennessee Department of Safety and is available to anyone who wants it, simply by contacting the agency's office. The state of Tennessee, to this point, has decided that the right to carry a concealed weapon comes with the responsibility of agreeing to have a public record of who is packing.
The newspaper did edit the state's publicly available list. We removed street addresses and birth dates from the information to lessen any chance that somebody might use information on the list for identify theft. As a result, our posted list of permit holders for concealed weapons has less information about individuals than the phone book, your voter registration form or the credit card you use to buy dinner at a restaurant.
No matter. The posting of this list somehow conjured up deep fears about personal safety, criminals and the media being soft on crime and hard on the Second Amendment.
This newspaper isn't soft on crime. We know that crime is the No. 1 issue that needs to be addressed in Memphis. We urge public officials to get tough on crime. We back Republican-led efforts to take a hard line on gun crimes and repeat offenders. Only last week we gave prominent coverage to Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton's call for a tougher gun-offender registry in Tennessee. We hope that proposal comes to pass so we can post the names of all who commit gun offenses and the names of all those arrested for carrying a gun without a permit.
And we're not enabling criminals by posting the list of Tennesseans who have carry permits.
Think about it for a minute. Many, if not most, households in Memphis possess a firearm. So you don't really need a list to find a house with a gun.
And, if criminals were checking the permit-to-carry list before picking a target, would they likely choose a house where they know the owner could be carrying a gun, or would they more likely steer away from that house to avoid a possible confrontation?
Neither logic nor common sense is carrying the day on this issue. It's emotion. After listening to dozens of phone calls, it seems that the issue, for them, boils down to a simple core equation: I have a constitutional right to possess a firearm; any effort to infringe on that right will be opposed.
For all those who are a notch or two away from a strict black-and-white view of gun rights, there's a powerful case to be made both for a permitting process to carry concealed weapons and for keeping that permitting process public.
To begin with, the permit-to-carry law helps identify responsible gun owners. If you are a felon, have committed a crime with a gun, have a history of mental problems, etc., you can't get a permit. That's good for society.
Next, violation of the permit-to-carry law can lead to an arrest. In other words, somebody stopped for a traffic violation or frisked at a bar, who has a gun but no permit, can be busted right there. Another plus.
Finally, when somebody who has a permit for a concealed weapon messes up with a gun, they lose their right to have that concealed weapon. For example, Harry Raymond "Ray" Coleman, the Cordova man charged recently with shooting a man to death after an argument about whether the dead man's SUV was parked too close to Coleman's vehicle, will lose his permit to carry a concealed weapon. Isn't that the way it should be?
That's a good segue into why the permit-to-carry list needs to stay public.
News events like the Feb. 6 shooting at Trinity Commons shopping center led many people to wonder, logically and instantly, who else might be packing a gun. At the point of that shooting, the online list of who is licensed to carry a concealed weapon became a matter of deep public interest. That's why, during the past week, thousands of people looked at the list that had been sitting mostly unnoticed on the Web site for two months.
A mom might now check the list to see if the parents at her kid's sleep-over next door had a concealed weapon permit. If so, maybe it would be worth talking to them to make sure the gun is locked up.
A school official, concerned about whether teachers were bringing guns onto school grounds, might check the list to see whether anyone on the staff has a permit to carry, and then have a discussion about it.
Business people who sell goods and services that might be of interest to those who carry concealed weapons might use the list to generate new leads.
But there is one overriding, enduring reason the permit-to-carry list needs to be public. Once a concealed weapon is pulled out at a shopping center, a hospital or a business, what happens next with that gun becomes a matter of public concern to everyone.
That's why commercialappeal.com posted the list. It's a tiny bit of local information, and we're in that business of gathering and distributing local information.
Granted, news organizations do have some things to learn about this changing media world where print is about stories and online is about data and search. We need to learn how to massage databases more efficiently to tease out particular information, such as how many convicted felons in Shelby County have a concealed weapons permit. (Nine, as it turned out when we did this story back in August 2008.)
We'll learn. The feedback, flaming and otherwise, from gun owners concerned about this issue has been helpful. But there isn't much room to go back on this mixing of news in print with data online. If it's not The Commercial Appeal doing this, then it will be Google or a hundred Web sites. As more news and information gathering shifts online, local newspapers like this one simply must make sure that those who are searching for information about local communities are directed to newspaper-based information sources. That's why we continue to add databases to our Web site for people to use. We've already got restaurant cleanliness scores, missing IRS refund checks and school test score results. We're working on addresses of sex offenders, real estate transactions and more.
So can we exhale on this?
The newspaper isn't anti-gun. We are pro-news and information. That's our job, and we want to do it right.
Inside the Newsroom: Case for gun-permit listings trumps emotional opposition : Columnists : Memphis Commercial Appeal