As you’ve probably heard, there’s a growing furor about the decision of a suburban New York newspaper to publish a database of the names and addresses of registered gun owners in two New York counties (Rockland and Westchester) just north of New York City. The data is already in the public domain. You or I could have accessed it a week ago. But it’s a little different to have it in a fingertips-ready web 2.0 form.
When I heard that some people were outraged about this, the first thing it reminded me of were the complaints over the last year about efforts to create transparency into the new political giving under Citizens United. These complaints, in the nature of things, tended to come from the right and suggested that wealthy donors were somehow being demonized or even threatened by disclosure. At the loopiest, the idea was that violent bands of liberals would harass or attack these people. At the more prosaic, it was just that extremely wealthy people should not only have the right to give without limit into the political system but that they should have the right to do so anonymously. Without consequences — like the legitimate consequences of people knowing what you’re doing and drawing conclusions about you accordingly.
Put those together and you have one group of people — mainly on the right, though I’m not sure how significant that is — pushing for maximal assertion of rights but crying foul on other, equally valid and constitutional rights, which are more civic in nature, ones that benefit the whole community and exist in a productive tension with those individual rights.
Looked at from another perspective, there’s even perhaps a generational perspective. The Republican coalition likes guns and mega-money Citizens United giving, the new Democratic coalition is more interested in and conversant with the data applications, info-graphics, data and transparency. A little much? Maybe. Maybe not. I think there’s something to it.
About three-quarters of me feels like this is a mix of paranoia and special pleading. With the big money donors, other than being publicly known, are these guys so ramped up on Fox News that they think Obama’s going to send the New Black Panthers to their house to rough them up? Not a totally sarcastic or rhetorical question. Do they?
Do these forty thousand gun owners in suburban New York really think they’re threatened? Jesus, they’ve got the guns!
I say three-quarters because disclosure isn’t always comfortable. I can relate. I’m a public figure, albeit a small one, in a very polarized public space. I don’t advertise my home address. So I get some not wanting people to know where you live. But it’s a little hard for me to see where that’s really an issue where you’re publishing a database of some 40,000 people.
All of this is a way to come around to saying that I have no punch line in this post. I’m a bit mixed about my own thoughts and feelings on this question. So I’m curious about what you think. Is it really shaming or endangering anyone to make it easy to access public information about who owns — or technically, who has registered to own — a gun? How can it be shaming when it’s a right and you’ve chosen to exercise that right? That doesn’t make any sense to me.
There’s some part of this which is contending cultures of which rights matter, perhaps even what they are. There’s another part which is simply wanting too much — your rights, your privacy, your secrecy. The high-toned way to put this might be to say that the complainers have little respect for the civic space. But I’ll leave it at some people want too much. No one gets everything on their terms.
What do you think?
Late Update: A lot of people are divided about this, it seems. A number of people have asked whether this isn’t the same as if we published the names of women who get abortions. It’s an interesting hypothetical. But I think the answer is relatively clear cut: my owning a gun affects my neighbor in a way that a woman having an abortion simply does not. Whether you think about it in terms of self-defense (this person has a firearm in their harm and can defend against an intruder) or simply safety (there’s a gun in that house, maybe I don’t want my kid playing there), owning a gun is not just something that affects those around you. That’s a lot of the point … certainly if self-defense is part of the aim. Current law seems to recognize this. After all, there’s a reason why this information is in the public domain in the first place — the newspaper just made it easier to access.
Later Update: A few readers have noted that one reason people register fire arms is because they’ve been stalked or have survived some sort of abuse. Publicizing their names and addresses enables the abusers. This seems like a more serious concern. I’ve asked these folks (and I don’t know the answer yet) whether a woman who’s been stalked by an ex- can petition to have their name and address not be made public. My tentative response in this case is that this seems like potentially a real concern but that the state should take cognizance of this need. After all, if I’m the violent ex-husband, I probably won’t wait for the website. I’ll just get it from the state directory. It’s not hard. I don’t state that flippantly. I feel like I need more information on this one.
Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.