By Matt Pearce
It’s getting hard to find a public official in Putnam County, N.Y., who thinks putting the names of gun permit-holders on a map does anybody good.
On Thursday, a flock of officials gathered at a news conference to announce their support for County Clerk Dennis Sant’s decision to refuse a public-records request by the White Plains-based Journal News for a list of licensed handgun permit-holders, whose names and addresses are public record under law.
The state’s top open-records official previously told the Los Angeles Times that county officials would be breaking the law by refusing the newspaper’s request.
On Dec. 22, the newspaper published online an interactive map that included the names and address of people who had pistol permits licensed by Westchester and Rockland counties. The map led to so much outrage that the newspaper has hired armed guards to protect its newsroom. Reporting on one recent incident, the newspaper said it received a suspicious envelope containing white powder on Wednesday evening, which was deemed to be nontoxic.
The Journal News also wants to publish a similar map for Putnam County, but officials have resisted. On Thursday, there was no indication of the battle easing after Putnam County officials said they’re prepared to take the fight all the way to its conclusion, according to statements released by the office of state Sen. Greg Ball, a Republican who represents the area.
“We simply cannot stand by and allow this to happen,” Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell said in a statement. “Safeguarding our citizens is of the utmost importance right now.”
Odell told The Times on Wednesday that the map had endangered residents with restraining orders as well as first responders, such as law enforcement personnel, whose addresses were now out in the open.
“Today you can take what The Journal News put into print, go on Google Earth and virtually be sitting on the front porch of a house reading the license plate of a car parked in the driveway,” Sant said in the statement. “This county clerk refuses to put law-abiding citizens in harm’s way.”
And the county officials charged with upholding the law — Putnam County Sheriff Donald B. Smith and Putnam County Dist. Atty. Adam Levy — also appeared at the news conference to show their support.
“I am deeply troubled by the fact that releasing this information will provide the names and addresses of members of law enforcement, including members who may be working undercover,” Smith said. Levy said the newspaper’s publication was not “prudent.”
The statute on handgun permits in New York states, “The name and address of any person to whom an application for any license has been granted shall be a public record.” State law also says that officials can be docked for attorneys’ fees if a court finds they had “no reasonable basis for denying access.”
The Journal News cited the Newtown, Conn., massacre that left 28 dead, including the shooter, in publishing the data, saying some residents wanted to know more about people who held handgun permits in their area. The paper published an FAQ early Thursday morning explaining the map but not the reasons for its publication, which has been criticized by some (though not all) major media critics.
In a statement given to The Times on Wednesday, Journal News President and Publisher Janet Hasson said, “We believe the law is clear that this is public information and the residents of Putnam County are entitled to see it. We’re troubled that county officials have apparently switched their position since we first requested the information.”
In its story about Thursday’s Putnam County news conference on the publication of the data, the Journal News quoted a state assemblyman blasting the newspaper for its efforts.
“The Journal News has really come up with the perfect map for the perpetrators and for the stalkers and for the criminals,” Assemblyman Steve Katz said. “They have yet to give us a cogent reason why, except for the reason that they can. I am sorry — that is not acceptable.”
The story did not quote any of its own personnel in response to their critics.
Hasson did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday and could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.