Gun Owners Irked By Newspaper Database Ploy

July 7, 2008 - 8:23 PM

(Editor's note: The Roanoke Times on Monday night removed the online database of registered concealed handgun permit holders from its website until the Virginia State Police, which provided the information, can "verify" the data. "When we posted the information, we had every reason to believe that the data the State Police had supplied would comply with the statutes. But people have notified us that the list includes names that should not have been released," Debbie Meade, president and publisher of The Roanoke Times, wrote on the newspaper's website. "Out of a sense of caution and concern for the public we have decided to take the database off of our website.")

(CNSNews.com) - Virginia handgun owners are fired up over the publication of their names and addresses in a database posted online by a state newspaper.

The database of every Virginia resident who holds a state-issued permit to carry a concealed handgun was posted on the Roanoke Times' website Sunday to accompany a column in the paper by Times editorial writer Christian Trejbal.

"There are good reasons the records are open to public scrutiny," Trejbal wrote. "People might like to know if their neighbors carry. Parents might like to know if a member of the car pool has a pistol in the glove box. Employees might like to know if employers are bringing weapons to the office."

However, gun owners contend such public scrutiny could pose a risk to gun owners and non-gun owners across the state.

"I've talked to federal agents who have testified against criminals, and police who have permits, that now have their home address posted on the Internet," Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, told Cybercast News Service. "What if a stalker wants to cross check if his victim has a permit?"

Van Cleave said the VCDL is organizing a boycott of the newspaper and businesses that advertise in the paper. He also said the group might publish a photo of Trejbal's home on its own website -- along with his address, the cost of the house and all other public information pertaining to Trejbal. It may do the same for other executives at the newspaper, he added.

"The First Amendment is a powerful thing," Van Cleave said. "Maybe we can learn more about these people. Maybe once the public knows more about them, they will not want their children going to their houses. ... The best way to teach a person a lesson is to do turnabout."

Trejbal said early Monday he could not comment but said the newspaper was preparing a response to media inquiries. No response had arrived by Monday night.

In his column, Trejbal wrote, "A state that eagerly puts sex offender data online complete with an interactive map could easily do the same with gun permits, but it does not."

The comparison angered Van Cleave, who stressed that people who hold concealed carry permits are law-abiding citizens. If they were not, he pointed out, they would not go through the legal process of obtaining a permit.

According to the paper, the state has issued 135,789 concealed carry permits. Trejbal called the database a "Sunshine Week gift" to readers. Sunshine Week marks freedom of information and open government.

Howard Finberg, director of interactive learning at the Poynter Institute, a journalism and education foundation, told Cybercast News Service Monday that journalists should weigh the publication even of information that already is public if it could have negative consequences.

"Any journalist should ask what the purpose of publishing information is. What are you trying to accomplish? What is the potential harm?" Finberg said.

He stressed that he was not taking a position on whether the paper should have posted the database, but added, "You have to balance the potential consequences with the public's right to know."

There should at least have been an ethical debate in the newsroom before the decision to publish the list, Fred Brown, the vice chairman of the ethics committee for the Society of Professional Journalist and past national president of the organization told Cybercast News Service.

"I suppose you could also argue that it's a public service to let people know who is packing," said Brown, a retired state capitol bureau chief with the Denver Post.

"The ethics are questionable. Just because you can do it, doesn't mean you should do it. I hope there was a lot of discussion in the newsroom before publishing."

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