Thursday, February 07, 2008

Concealing concealed weapons permits

South Carolina could be become the next state to put concealed weapons permits under wraps.

A bill has advanced from a state Senate subcommittee that would make the records secret. The bill's sponsor has pulled out one of the standard arguments -- houses (presumably not on the permit list) could be targeted for break-ins. (Among others that have surfaced in the past: the overbroad "privacy" argument and "you can't deter crime if the bad guys know who's packing.")

But as Brant Houston, then director of Investigative Repoters and Editors, said in that 2004 article from News Media and the Law, Journalists need access to permit records to effectively report on the use of concealed weapons by convicted felons and domestic abusers, as well as the day-to-day incidents that involve guns. The records also allow reporters to look into how the permitting process is being implemented by officials. Keeping those records secret, Houston said, "doesn't make any sense . . . especially when you're dealing with dangerous weapons."

Given the realities in South Carolina, however, this bill probably is headed for the finish line pretty quickly.

A lot of this stems from the Roanoke Times' decision to put Virginia's concealed weapons database on its Web site, only to take it down under the weight of protests.

Which puts a little wider perspective on all this. It isn't the first time that newspapers, empowered by the Internet, have run into a buzzsaw of public opposition. The Lansing State Journal ran into widespread protests last year when it posted state salaries online. As a commenter on that blog put it: But I suspect the State Journal did a disservice to the cause of freedom of information in the way it simply plopped this information out there. Most state employees never even thought about it and were caught off-guard. They are, understandably, outraged at what they perceive as an arrogant, corporate-owned media outlet splashing intensely personal (note I didn't say private) information out for all the world to see.

Bottom line: In this Internet age, where all the rage is putting online any piece of data that moves (think of sites like Everyblock), we sometimes risk winning the battle but losing the war.

No, I'm not suggesting we keep this data secret, but I think we can learn a lot by listening to the person who made that comment. Just plopping it down -- just because we can -- has never been a great reason but is even more fraught with complications in an age where people are becoming hypersensitive to digital privacy invasions. Larry Timbs, Will Atkinson and I raised some of the same issues in our exploration of the ethical issues surrounding the digitization of newspaper archives. (PDF)

Now, more than ever, think before we leap. Have we laid the groundwork for this? Have we explained clearly how this benefits the greater good?

If not, we are likely to see more cases of outrage and more lousy legislation like those bills that are putting concealed weapons permits off limits.

Labels: ,


At 2/7/08, 4:51 PM, Blogger Skip Foster said...

Many years ago, when I was at The Gaston Gazette, we took the concealed weapons database and cross checked them against crimes. If I recall correctly (this was before "links" were available), there were 31,000 permits in the state of N.C. Guess how many of them were used to committ a crime?
That, of course, has little bearing on the core issue -- these records should absolutely remain public. But it might be the stories generated from these records don't have the ending people might envision.

At 2/10/08, 11:28 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

But that was good context (although I don't know that I agree with the implied original hypothesis - that such weapons would be more likely used in a crime, or the opponents' that crimes would go up or down in areas with higher numbers of concealed weapons.)

Also good context might be telling people what areas of town have the highest concentrations of concealed weapons. While one side sees such things as an invitation to burglars, there's another group that also has real fears about the number of guns around their kids, etc. That kind of information could be done without exact addresses.

My concern is the trend to just "plop" data out there without much context, ala the Gannett Information Centers (note that the Tennessean also posted a concealed weapons list, only to be forced to take it down). The proponents argue that flooding the field with data allows people to create their own "narratives." True. But do we do more harm if in that process we encourage those legislators for whom open records are at best an irritant to put more records out of reach?

Digital changes everything -- and that should include some of our presumptions about what or how we publish. I'm going to write more about this in my monthly column.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home