journal news trash gun owners round 2
Gun owners take issue with The Journal News
By JORGE FITZ-GIBBON AND RICHARD LIEBSON
THE JOURNAL NEWS
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• Out-of-date records mar ability to track pistol owners
• List of Rockland County gun permit holders
• List of Westchester County gun permit holders
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Westchester wants police to license guns
(Original publication: January 26, 2007)
The regulars at the Coyne Park Rifle and Pistol Range in Yonkers are pretty fired up.
Their issue is with The Journal News, which published a list of pistol permit holders in Westchester and Rockland counties, a move that just didn't sit well with gun enthusiasts at the range - or anywhere else, for that matter.
"I was just upset that that's available through the Freedom of Information Act," said licensed gun owner Steven Nitis of Yonkers. "I felt like a criminal having my name out there when you go through a hell of a process to get the permit legally."
The New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, the state's largest gun group, has now vowed to join other groups and lobby Albany lawmakers to remove the names of pistol owners from public scrutiny, making them available only to law enforcement personnel.
"We're going to try to get someone in both houses and someone from both parties to co-sponsor a privacy bill, which would essentially say that the names, address and telephone numbers of pistol permit holders are not public knowledge," said Tom King, president of the rifle and pistol association. "We're going to put a big push for it in the next week or so."
The association says it will get the measure enacted, even in a state like New York with a history of restrictive gun laws.
The Dec. 10 report in The Journal News found that licensed gun owners who died remain listed as active permit holders because there is no system to keep records current, potentially leaving their weapons unaccounted for.
What riled gun owners was the newspaper's decision to include an online list of the more than 30,000 permit holders.
"My opinion is that it was irresponsible for the newspaper to run that list," said Coyne Park range member Andrew Harris. "I'm ambivalent about the list being in the public domain."
"Personally," added Roger Schirizzo, another member, "I don't think it's anybody's business. I didn't break any laws."
The information is public in New York state and was obtained by the newspaper through Freedom of Information Law requests.
"The objection to the list being published on the Web site is that it's leaving the law-abiding gun owners' homes and families at risk of being robbed when someone is looking to steal some guns," said Marc Diana, vice president of the United Sportsmen Association of Rockland. "It also leaves the non gun owners' houses at risk because now the criminals know that there isn't a gun there, and that they'll be easier prey and know they won't be shot at."
Scott Sommavilla, president of the Westchester County Firearm Owners Association, said some permit holders have even been chastised by neighbors who disapprove of gun ownership.
"I would say that it crossed the line to give anybody and everybody on the World Wide Web access to those homes and people," he said. "I think that criminals that would not normally have access to these people and names now do. You kind of spoon fed them the locations of firearms."
The names of legal pistol permit holders are public under New York State Penal Law section 400.00(5), which regulates firearms licensing and states that "the name and address of any person to whom an application for any license has been granted shall be a public record."
"The fact is, it was in the Penal Law before there was a Freedom of Information Law," said Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government.
"It's relatively unusual that there is a specific direction regarding the disclosure - or for that matter the confidentiality - of records," Freeman said. "And when you do have a statute where there is specification, it suggests to me that the state legislature was taking a strong stand."
The courts have ruled the lists can be obtained anonymously.
The Journal News got the records on a digital disc provided by the clerks. Putnam records were not available because they are still in paper files.
"A lot of people don't want things to be public, but they are," Freeman said. "In my opinion, historically in any number of situations, the names and addresses of licensees is public record."
Most gun advocates said they understand the list is public. That doesn't change their objection.
"The information itself is public information, as is a lot of other personal information about all of us," said Ken Mathison, president of the Shooters' Committee on Political Education, or SCOPE. "But being public information and being published to the public are two different things."
However, although not speaking for SCOPE members, he personally opposed sealing the lists.
"I see that as putting a kink in our work, too, if we want to send out a mailing to gun owners seeking funds or members or whatever," he said. "Personally, I think it should be public information, but the use of that information should come with some responsibility."
The New York State Rifle & Pistol Association has sought the names of permit holders for that purpose, suing New York City in 2003. The group won, but the city is appealing the ruling.
King, the association's president, said it will now focus on having the lists made available only to law enforcement agencies.
"The names can be published, but so can so many other lists," said Stan Pasco, who leads several Rockland gun groups. "Would you publish a whole list of, say, all the people that were arrested for DWI? Wouldn't I want to know if my child is going in somebody's car who might drink and drive?"
New York State Supreme Court Justice J. Emmett Murphy, a self-described "avid member of the target and sport shooting community," said he felt his fellow gun enthusiasts were just overreacting.
"I recall at least one study I read where convicted burglars in state prison say the one thing they fear more than alarm systems or guard dogs is an armed gun owner," he said. "The Journal News may have actually done gun owners a service by posting their names."
But gun owners said they feel "criminalized" by having their names made public. King said it is a problem best corrected by having legislators seal the list.
Most state legislators called for comment did not return calls. Those who did opposed the idea.
"Under normal circumstances - and I believe it is a normal circumstance - I believe that as much information as possible should be made available to the public," said state Sen. Suzi Oppenheimer, D-Mamaroneck. "I'm in complete support of freedom of information."
Assemblyman Adam Bradley, D-White Plains, said he would need "some pretty strong arguments to convince me that that information should not be available. Without seeing a specific proposal, I would be very concerned about denying access to information to the press or the public."
Ron Levine, chief of staff for state Sen. Thomas Morahan, R-New City, would not comment because no proposal is on the table.
Still, King, of the Rifle & Pistol Association, said he is confident there will be sponsors in the legislature, and that it will be enacted.
"I do, because this is a privacy issue rather than a gun issue," King said. "I think that, actually, it should be pretty successful."
"I'm sure this is not going to be high on their agenda, and I'm sure there are other things that they want to work on right away," he said. "So I would think that this would happen, but it will probably be later in the year."
At least that's the hope at the Coyne Park range in Yonkers.
"I wouldn't want my neighbors to know I have a gun because people's attitudes change when they know you have a gun," said range member Tom Amato.
"Nobody should get that list," Amato said. "I think, across the board, it should be for law enforcement only."
Reach Jorge Fitz-Gibbon at firstname.lastname@example.org or 914-694-5016.
gun control|WEAPONS ENTHUSIASTS angry at seeing names appear on the web