Gun Carry Permits v. Public Records

The Commercial Appeal just won an APME First Amendment Citation for its searchable database of handgun carry permit holders who live in Tennessee and stories about the felons with guns and other folks with violent histories who nonetheless obtained permits.

A colleague (who left the newspaper a few months ago) posted the original data on the CA’s Data Center in December. It wasn’t promoted, and no one noticed until a couple months later another reporter posted the link as a comment on a crime report about a guy with a carry permit shooting and killing another guy in front of his children regarding a parking space. Gun rights folks were/are enraged.

To rally the troops, the NRA spread the word that the CA was carrying through some anti-gun agenda, where the “public’s right to know outweighs your right to privacy” by publishing the addresses of every handgun carry permit holder, alerting potential burglars where guns are to be had for the taking.

Four problems with that faulty, though effective, rhetoric:

1) Addresses were never published, though they are public records (There’s nothing stopping you, dear reader, from obtaining that data yourself, for about $80, though some people would like to change that.) The street name was originally published, but the CA backed off and included city and ZIP code as the only geographic identifiers.

2) Even if addresses had been published, your average burglar isn’t going to be tech-savvy enough to use the database to that end. We’re not talking about Ocean’s Eleven caliber criminals here folks.

3) Publication has nothing to do with being the CA supposedly being “anti-gun,” any more so than publication of recent restaurant inspection scores is “anti-food,” or publication of Memphis Light, Gas and Water salaries “anti- electricity, gas and water,” or listings of area churches are somehow “anti-religion.”

4) Public records are not private records. Sorry.

I’ve mined the data for a few stories and have since been maintaining and updating the database. It’s pretty popular. I imagine a lot of the people who were so mad about it really helped promote it.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t have done more at the time to explain the value of publishing such data. But judging by the seemingly coordinated foamy-mouthed outrage and threats, it likely wouldn’t have made much of a difference. Editor Chris Peck wrote a column addressing that value as the controversy erupted.

At the end of the day, handgun carry permits are public records. Public records should be easily accessible to the public. Now they are.

Check it out:

About the Author

grant smith
Hi. I’m a freelance journalist and data specialist living in NJ/NYC. I like to play outside.

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