NEW YORK – A New York county clerk justified his refusal to release the names and addresses of handgun permit holders to a newspaper, saying it would give stalkers and thieves a convenient roadmap to target potential victims – and determine whether they have a gun.
"This certainly puts my public in danger," Putnam County Clerk Dennis Sant said Thursday following a news conference in which he was backed by the county executive and other elected officials.
The Journal News, which serves New York City's northern suburbs, sparked an outcry last month when it published clickable online maps with the names and addresses of pistol permit holders in Rockland and Westchester counties.
When the newspaper requested the same information from Putnam, Sant initially said the county needed more time to fulfill the request. Sant balked entirely this week, saying the law gives him the prerogative to refuse to release public information if it endangers the public. Judges and police officers could be targeted by the people they put behind bars, he said. People with orders of protection have expressed concern to him about would-be attackers finding them through the database.
While anyone can come into his office and file the necessary paperwork to request information on individual permits, Sant said the difference is that the Journal News plans to publish the information in a way that makes it accessible to everyone, instantaneously.
"First of all, it tells criminals who doesn't have a gun," he said. "It gives a burglar or it gives a thief a map."
The Journal News' database and accompanying story, "The Gun Owner Next Door," was published as part of the newspaper's coverage following the Newtown, Conn., school shooting. Some readers say it unfairly stigmatized gun owners, branding them in the same way as online maps showing where child molesters live. The newspaper says it received threats and has posted armed guards at its offices.
Journal News Publisher Janet Hasson did not respond to several requests for comment Thursday but has issued statements previously standing behind the newspaper's project and maintaining residents have a right to see such public information.
Diane Kennedy, president of the New York News Publishers Association, said she reached out to Hasson offering support. She said editors may debate whether the Journal News should have published the database, but they fully backed the newspaper's right to access public records under New York's Freedom of Information Law. If the issue went to court, she said, member newspapers would file a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the Journal News.
"It's really clear cut," Kennedy said. "The existing law doesn't have exemptions in it. It says this information is subject to FOIL."
Rex Smith, editor of the Times Union in Albany, N.Y., said : "There is a broad consensus that the kind of resistance to the FOIL application that we're seeing in Putnam County is intolerable."
The denial of similar information to The Wall Street Journal by New York City's police commissioner led to a case that in 1981 was decided in favor of the newspaper.
But Sant says that times have changed.
"The technology today is so different," he said. "I'm looking forward to the opportunity of bringing to the magistrates that this is not 30 years ago."
Several attempts to pass a law that would shield gun permit holders' personal information have failed to pass the legislature in recent years.
Experts say the county may have a difficult time defending the refusal, because New York state law classifies the data as public.
"The argument has been made and rejected," said Robert Freeman of the State Committee on Open Government. "There's never been any indication that disclosure resulted in any jeopardy."
Edward S. Rudofsky, a New York attorney who specializes in the First Amendment, added, "I don't see why technology makes this any more or less sensitive than it would otherwise be."