The New York Times has a revealing article about the suburban New York newspaper, The Journal News, and its decision a few weeks ago to publish a list of names and addresses as well as an interactive map of all of the people who hold handgun permits in Westchester and Rockland counties. The print and online edition of the article, “The Gun Owner Next Door: What You Don’t Know About the Weapons in Your Neighborhood,” became a nationwide sensation, and the Times’s summary of the story so far documents an amazing display of narcissism and projection:
Calls and e-mails grew so threatening that the paper’s president and publisher, Janet Hasson, hired armed guards to monitor the newspaper’s headquarters in White Plains and its bureau in West Nyack, N.Y.
Personal information about editors and writers at the paper has been posted online, including their home addresses and information about where their children attended school; some reporters have received notes saying they would be shot on the way to their cars; bloggers have encouraged people to steal credit card information of Journal News employees; and two packages containing white powder have been sent to the newsroom and a third to a reporter’s home (all were tested by the police and proved to be harmless).
“As journalists, we are prepared for criticism,” Ms. Hasson said, as she sat in her meticulously tended office and described the ways her 225 employees have been harassed since the article was published. “But in the U.S., journalists should not be threatened.” She has paid for staff members who do not feel safe in their homes to stay at hotels, offered guards to walk employees to their cars, encouraged employees to change their home telephone numbers and has been coordinating with the local police.
Was The Journal News right or wrong to publish this information in this fashion? Most unusually, I have had a hard time formulating an opinion on this. I can see the arguments from both sides: on the one hand, it’s publicly available information, and I don’t think there is any evidence that the article was written in order to intimidate gun permit holders. On the other hand, it seems like an unseemly invasion of one’s privacy to have not just your name and address published, but to find your household identified on an interactive map merely because you applied for a handgun owner’s permit. And after all, this isn’t data about the actual presence of guns, just of gun permit applications–who knows about the unpermitted guns out there, and what about those who took out a permit but who no longer own the gun in question? It’s fairly slushy data.
I am sure the newspaper could have come up with a way of raising the issue of the number of handgun permits in these counties and their distribution in various neighborhoods without identifying individuals who were after all only complying with New York law. Nevertheless, the efforts to intimidate or instill fear in the people at The Journal News are utterly reprehensible, and appear for the most part to have originated outside of Westchester and Rockland counties.
But that’s not exactly what I want to address in this post. I want to note the theme of fear that permeates the New York Times analysis of the case, and specifically the fear expressed not by unarmed citizens, not by the neighbors whose houses were implicitly flagged as gun-free in Westchester and Rockland counties, but rather the fear expressed by those who have guns in their households. According to “Scott Sommavilla, president of the 35,000-member Westchester County Firearm Owners Association,”
“They’re really upset about it,” Mr. Sommavilla said. “They’re afraid for their families.”
Why, if guns make one safer at home as gun manufacturers and gun owners constantly tell us, would gun owners be “afraid,” I wonder? I wish the reporter had pressed Sommavilla on this, and had asked him why the publication of this article made his constituency as identified handgun permit carriers more fearful. But this fear, I would argue, appears to be an emotional or temperamental condition of their lives, one that is unmoved or unimproved by gun ownership.
This might be merely of psychological or sociological interest if gun owners didn’t try to spread their fear throughout their communities through criminal as well as legal means. Fear appears to be not just a central motivating force in their lives, but also one of their favorite tactics in defense of what they perceive to be their “rights.” Intimidation and creating fear are central to the bullying tactics of the gun rights absolutists:
[Author of the article Dwight R.] Worley said he had received mainly taunting phone calls sprinkled in with callers who said “you should die.” He found broken glass outside of his home and would not say how much time he was spending there right now. But he said he had largely been supported by the newsroom.
The Journal News’s features editor, Mary Dolan, said that while she was not involved with the publication of the article, her home address and phone numbers were published online in retaliation. She has had to disconnect her phone and has “taken my social media presence and just put it on the shelf for a while.” She has also received angry phone calls from former neighbors in Westchester whose gun information was published.
She said she was especially concerned about the part-time staff members who write up wedding anniversary and church potluck announcements who have been harassed. But she supports the paper for its decision.
“It sparked a conversation that needed to occur in this country, and it revealed tactics that will be employed when gun owners feel their rights are threatened,” she said.
Emphasis mine, especially on the use of the word feel by Ms. Dolan. It’s all about their feelings. The rest of us don’t matter–their fear is all that matters to them.
Fearful people are trying to make sure the rest of us are just as afraid of the world and of each other as they are. Fear is what drives the entire firearms industry in this country. Gun manufacturers stoke these fears, and they are brilliant manipulators of people who are instinctually fearful. But no number of guns apparently can ever assuage their fears.
I wonder if someday we’ll discover in the secret archives of the gun manufacturers the psychological and marketing research such as we know the Big Tobacco undertook in order to get people addicted to cigarettes and inspire brand loyalty. They’re just trying to move their product, a product desired by the fearful that can only further inflame those fears.
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