< Papers, Guns and Databases


Friday, March 20, 2009

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Public information is a lot more public than it used to be. Online you can rummage through everything from restaurant health inspection reports to records of political donations. Still, it can be a bit of an expedition. Records are largely decentralized and hard to access. So, in a bid to draw more online readers, many newspapers are assembling those public records under one roof – the paper’s website. The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tennessee is one such paper. Its online data center is exhaustive, and last December it added a database of everyone in the state who has a permit to carry a handgun. The NRA and many gun owners protested that this violated their right to privacy. But Chris Peck, the paper’s editor, says in this case there are good reasons why privacy should take a back seat to the free flow of information. This is news his readers can use.

CHRIS PECK: They might have a kid who was thinking about going overnight for a sleepover and a parent might say, gee, I wonder if there’s a gun in the house? And we had many people who perhaps had protective orders against an ex-spouse or boyfriend use the list from time to time to see if the person who was under the protective order had a gun. So there was all variety of reasons. But the core reason was this was a public record that we felt could be useful to people in making decisions in their daily lives.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you put up the data in December and a huge backlash happened in February. What happened?

CHRIS PECK: We had a situation in Memphis where two men got in an argument about whether their SUVs were parked too close to one another, and one of the men went to his vehicle, got a gun and came back and shot and killed the other man in the midst of the argument. So then in the course of reporting about the shooting, we made a very small reference in print to the fact that we had the database online – it had been online for months – and that, in fact, the person who was involved in the shooting had a permit to carry. And at that point, what happened was the NRA, and other pro-gun groups in Tennessee and elsewhere around the country, launched a very intense national campaign accusing us of violating people’s privacy, of endangering people.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Specifically the NRA said that the database on your site was hateful and shameful. It was a form of public irresponsibility and the collapse of responsible media.

CHRIS PECK: Those were some of the nicer things that we heard from the most ardent pro-gun supporters, and we certainly would take seriously concerns that the NRA had raised. And we made it very clear that we were pro-Second Amendment but that we were also pro-First Amendment, and we felt there was a very strong case to be made that the balance needed to be struck between access of these records and also the accountability in government.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So after all the negative attention, you launched a campaign to show why the database was necessary.

CHRIS PECK: We really hadn't a done a lot of reporting using the database until this all blew up. And what we discovered was there were more than 600 people in the state of Tennessee who had felony convictions or other violent criminal acts who had a permit. And the point we wanted to make was, that’s the reason the records need to be open is that people who are carrying, have permits to carry, need to be responsible gun owners, and we agree with the NRA on that point. And that really is the crux of the issue.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nevertheless, you've been bombarded with emails from pro-gun-rights proponents. At one point you said you were getting 600 of them a day?

CHRIS PECK: This became a cause that really got way, way beyond the particular issues here in Tennessee. Many of the gun groups posted the names, the addresses and the photographs of my children on their pro-gun websites, the names, addresses and maps to houses of our publisher. It came to a point where we did have to get 24-hour protection at our residences because of the vitriol that was being expressed over the posting of the database.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The NRA has taken advantage of this backlash to push through some legislation. One bill that’s being considered in the Tennessee legislature would make it a criminal offense to publish these records. In effect, it would make you take the website down. Where does this bill stand?

CHRIS PECK: The issue of whether to criminalize the posting of the records has been delayed. And we're not sure exactly what’s going on there, although it does appear that there are some people who are uncomfortable in the legislature with the idea of making a criminal offense to reveal the name of someone who was on the list. And one of the issues that I think is getting traction with some gun owners is this. If you succeed, in fact, if the NRA and others succeed in closing off the list to the public, what you then have created, of course, is a secret list of gun owners in Tennessee that only the government has. And many of these folks who are so adamant about this permit to carry issue are equally adamant about not wanting to have the government be too intrusive or involved in their lives. So the irony and the paradox of all this is that Tennessee is on the verge of creating a secret list of people who have guns that only the government can see. And, again, I think that has caused, at least in the cooler heads, a little bit of thought about whether you, in fact, want to completely close off this list.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what have you learned from this whole big brouhaha?

CHRIS PECK: I mean, one of the things that I heard often from people, and when I looked at their emails, they say, the real thing that I don't like about this list being posted on your website is, first, it gives criminals a way to get to my house. And then the second thing was the phrase, “It takes away my advantage.” And when you think about what that says is there’s a sense that we are, you know, a hair’s breadth away from having to pull that gun out and defend myself.

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] And I think living in that world and the intensity of those feelings were really sobering.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Chris, thank you very much.

CHRIS PECK: Well, thanks for having me.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Chris Peck is editor of The Commercial Appeal, a daily newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee.