When the Journal News caused a national uproar and endangered the lives of its staff to create a Google Map of gun permit holders in New York, it was justified for the cause of transparency and civic dialog. Unfortunately, it now appears that the map was woefully inaccurate, possibly implicating citizens who had died, ditched their guns, or moved. “Nobody ever called and verified the address,” said Mike Smith, who was surprised to see his address on the map, and apparently was marked after his brother had used his address when he applied for a handgun licence. Whoops!
A week after the Newtown massacre, the Journal News published an interactive Google Map of the names and addresses of gun permit owners in select New York cities. The moved caused national headlines for weeks, and even sparked acts of (ironic) revenge, including a Connecticut lawyer who posted the phone numbers and addresses of the newspaper’s staff.
While there’s a reasonable debate about whether gun permit ownership should be public information, there is no upside to transparency when it endangers the wrong citizens. Apparently, in Rockland County, the vast majority of the 16,998 permit holders were considered “historic,” some dating back to the 1930’s. Only 3,907 (22%) were current.
Transparency of government records is still a recent development; the advancement of technology hasn’t kept pace with clunky record keeping, giving overzealous journalists more offensive power than citizens have defensive power.
Perhaps, next time, we should reach out to the data geeks in charge of the information and see how accurate our conclusions might be.