Opinion: Freedom to be left alone

January 10, 2013



That, in a word, is how you feel when someone broadcasts your home address without your knowledge, against your wishes. Your correspondent speaks from experience. Six years ago when white supremacists published my home address and phone number on their websites, the first thing I felt was vulnerable.

The folks at the Journal News newspaper in New York state would doubtless say it was not their intention to do anything like that when they published online maps of gun ownership in their area. But intention and effect are two completely different things.

The maps show dots covering two suburban New York counties — Westchester and Rockland — like a rash, one for each of the 33,614 persons who is licensed to own a handgun there. Had it been the intention of the paper simply to illustrate the ubiquity of guns, those graphics would have done the job nicely.

But the paper did not stop there. Click on any one dot and up comes the name and home address of the gun owner in question.

Gun owners nationwide have been furious ever since the maps went up a few days before Christmas. They have a right to be.

Mind you, they have no right to send threatening notes, or packets of white powder (later deemed harmless) to the newsroom, no right to harass employees of the newspaper, as some have done. Such behavior lends new meaning to the term “gun nuts.” But, that said, yes, they do have a right to be angry.

The paper has confronted the storm of controversy, including a call for an advertiser boycott, by pointing out that the information it published is not private. As reporter Dwight R. Worley (himself a registered gun owner) noted in an accompanying article, “Anyone can find out the names and addresses of handgun owners in any county with a simple Freedom of Information Law request.”

But that, again, misses the point. There is a qualitative difference between information that is public in the sense that anyone who is so inclined can go dig it out, and information that is public because it has been broadly publicized.

Would you publish a database of people who have filed for bankruptcy? People who have been foreclosed? People who have tax liens? Or would you say this information, while public, has no news value; tells a reader nothing he needs to know and does so at a price of discomfiting some law-abiding citizen, putting their business in the street?

Yes, it can be argued that guns are different because, while legal, they also embody legitimate concerns for personal safety. But it can also be argued that if you really want to know if your neighbor has a gun, you can ask — or, if that is not an option, you can look it up.

The Journal News database seems an act of excess, the sort of thing that is done because it can be done, with little thought given to the consequences of the doing.

And if one consequence is that some New York state gun owners feel exposed, the larger consequence for all of us is a further chipping away of private spaces, a further compromise of the increasingly quaint idea that one has a right to live peacefully and an expectation to not be bothered in so doing.

This is not about freedom of the press or freedom to own guns. It is, rather, about the freedom to be left alone, and whether that’s still sustainable or whether henceforth we must all live exposed. The technology being what it is, it’s worth remembering that the answer to that question, whatever it may be, will be shaped both by journalists and by those who are not.

Consider that, while some gun owners vented their anger by making threats and sending baking soda in the mail, others expressed themselves more pointedly. They posted home addresses for Journal News employees online.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CST each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.


Laus_Deo 5 years, 4 months ago

"This is not about freedom of the press or freedom to own guns. It is, rather, about the freedom to be left alone,"

This is ground breaking to hear coming from a Liberal....."to be left alone"..groundbreaking!!!!!...to be left alone....is there still hope for their type? Do they have the ability to Leave other people alone?

It's a start that a Liberal like Pitts, is recognizing that Liberals are the one's "not" leaving him alone.....or has he? .....No?... Liberals, like yourself Pitts, are the one's not leaving you alone. Liberals like yourself are the ones posting crazy things of which you speak.....people like yourself....Liberal.

jonas_opines 5 years, 4 months ago

"You are the ones posting crazy things"


fiddleback 5 years, 4 months ago

You want to be left alone, sure, but then what has changed since the demon liberals regained power, except that you're now required to buy health insurance? Afterall, you're most likely buying it anyway, and plus you can thank the good ol' Heritage Foundation for first proposing the mandate idea back in '89...So have your income taxes gone up any in the last 10 years? Heck, even if you happen to make over $400K and are about to see that dastardly 4% increase, this is all pretty damn weak tea for screaming about liberal tyranny...

So you can complain (emptily) that lefties don't want to leave your wallet alone or want to restrict certain purchasing choices, but then right-wingers certainly don't want to leave your bedroom alone. They want to keep antiquated sodomy laws on the books. They want to deny committed gay couples equal property and visitation rights. And most of all, they want to make sure that the women in your life (if there are any) are forced to carry any and all conceptions to term, regardless of rape, incest, fetal abnormalities, life-threatening conditions, etc. In fact with these latter complications, they now even want to deny a woman's right to be fully informed by her doctor.

So rather than constructing your umpteenth liberal boogie-man, how about you consider pointing your nozzle in the direction of the party that's actually already encroaching on very fundamental human rights and choices?

Cait McKnelly 5 years, 4 months ago

Sorry, Lennie. I have just as much right to know that my next door neighbor has a registered firearm as I do that they are a registered sex offender. Having the knowledge of either one increases my chance of survival.
Besides, why would a gun owner be upset at having their personal information published? Are they ashamed of owning a gun? They're engaged in a legal activity.
Anti-abortion groups publicly post the names, addresses, employers, phone numbers, what type vehicle they drive, etc of people that work in abortion clinics on a daily basis. I don't see a lot of difference here.

Uncle_Jerry 5 years, 4 months ago

My concern would really be for the people not on the map. Ask any convicted armed robber who he likes to rob the most? It's the people that do not have firearms. Not only did they publish who had firearms but who does not. It was a stupid move and actually put more people's lives at higher risk of becoming targets because of their selfish agenda.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 4 months ago

There's no guarantee the robber won't choose a home with an unregistered gun aimed right between his eyes. BANG.

voevoda 5 years, 4 months ago

"BANG"? Some people are too eager to have a chance to use their guns. It's more disquieting than the possibility of a break-in.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 4 months ago

I agree. Some people are too eager to use their gun. Unfortunately, there are also people too eager to break into other people's homes. Eliminate the latter and you will eliminate the former.

Personally, I choose not to break into other people's homes and choose not to own a gun. My "BANG" comment was intended as a recognition that some people would make that choice, not that I would.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 4 months ago

If theft is the goal, there will be two primary considerations-- ease of entry and egress without being detected and the likelihood of there being something worth stealing. And the ones who go in with their own guns do so because they think they'll get off the first shots, if necessary.

dwendel 5 years, 4 months ago

As a equally-well researched counter argument to Uncle Jerry (not a slam, just an acknowldegement that neither of us have shown evidence to support our theories), perhaps a convicted robber would choose to rob a place he/she knows has guns, in the hopes of stealing them. Stolen guns are very popular and easy to peddle amongst convicted felons, who cannot buy legally.

Uncle_Jerry 5 years, 4 months ago

Thanks dewndel, I appreciate your civility in your post.

Observe: Start at 2:40. If you're interested in the cited DOJ reference it's in there somewhere. It's an interesting segment. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RR9RN_iSKtg

jafs 5 years, 4 months ago

And, you can find that out with a little effort.

Not sure that anti-abortion groups have the right to do that either.

bad_dog 5 years, 4 months ago

What the heck is a licensed sex offender?

fiddleback 5 years, 4 months ago

I still agree that the paper made a terrible decision; I'd be mad if my house was in that area regardless of whether I was a gun owner or a non-gun owner. Concerned citizens can request it individually, but there is simply no benefit to broadcasting this info -- even if all your neighbors own guns, so what? Will you then only leave the house wearing kevlar? Give them the stink eye about it?

MarcoPogo 5 years, 4 months ago

Then I have the right to know who is watching "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" because those people are part of the problem.

Thinking_Out_Loud 5 years, 4 months ago

I think that's fair, Gandalf: as soon as you are required to apply for and receive a license to not carry a firearm, we should publish that list.

Thinking_Out_Loud 5 years, 3 months ago

Sigh. You missed the point entirely, Gandalf.

Your attempt at reductio ad absurdum is nonconvincing.

Mike Ford 5 years, 4 months ago

oh the black helicopters and the people watching me in my tv are coming to get me so I better arm myself to the hilt......paranoia solves everything except insanity.....oh and I better not learn the rest of the US Constitution because only one amendment exists for the crazies.....the second....oh I'm a 30 year gun owner that doesn't feel the need to clutch guns like a lunatic... I'm tired of the lunatics thinking they speak for me....do you hear me NRA?

fiddleback 5 years, 4 months ago

Pfft. You really think they'll be able to effectively ban or execute a recall for the best-selling rifle in America? Hell, odds are even heavily against a ban on the higher-capacity clips. This paranoia is just silly; I'd wager plenty that all these semi-automatic lovers' collections are not in the least jeopardized.

beatrice 5 years, 4 months ago

Nice to see you living up to your logon name.

How would the selling of those items underground make things worse?

Reality check time. You will still have all the other guns to choose from, and are almost guaranteed to never find yourself in a situation where you are needing to protect yourself (or go hunting) with a high-clip gun.

beatrice 5 years, 4 months ago

So you are against health care for those who don't have it otherwise. You have yours and to hell with others. Got it. However, you really think it okay to not hire someone based on race? You believe anyone should be able to purchase machine guns including the mentally ill, or simply not pay taxes at all? How about who to marry? Can I smoke inside a hospital?

Keep telling yourself you believe in pure freedom. Really. We believe you.

Liberty275 5 years, 4 months ago

"You have yours and to hell with others."

I have mine, you buy your own. I'm not your momma.

"However, you really think it okay to not hire someone based on race?"

Race shouldn't be a consideration since it doesn't actually exist.

"You believe anyone should be able to purchase machine guns including the mentally ill"

If you can get a license to own a machine gun, more power to you.

"simply not pay taxes at all"

No state income tax.

"How about who to marry?"

Marry whatever consenting adults you can find.

"Can I smoke inside a hospital?"

Given the use of oxygen, and the way it accelerates fire, no. Maybe in well ventilated rooms away from concentrated oxygen it would be OK.

"Keep telling yourself you believe in pure freedom."


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