GeoWorld March 2013

Issue link:

Contents of this Issue


Page 12 of 32

The Gun Owner Next Door, Geoprivacy and Beyond THE "G" IN GIS A mid renewed national calls for tougher gun control in the wake of the horrific school shooting in Newtown, Conn., some Lower Hudson Valley residents in New York, perhaps reflecting a sentiment of concerned citizens elsewhere, would like lawmakers to expand the amount of information the public can find out about gun owners. To meet this public demand, a local newspaper, The Journal News, published a report on Dec. 23, 2012, on gun ownership in the Lower Hudson Valley as well as an accompanying interactive online map displaying information on gunBY DANIEL SUI permit holders in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties. Immediately after publishing the maps, described by journalists as "the gun owner next door," there was a sensational public outcry. Although some residents in the two counties covered by the map expressed gratitude, the opposition seemed to dominate the debate. Gun-permit holders argue that their privacies are violated; law-enforcement agencies are concerned that maps showing detailed gun owners' addresses could encourage burglary; gun lovers fear the maps serve no useful purpose except stigmatizing most law-abiding gun owners. The newspaper staffers were harassed by threatening e-mails, and a suspicious package containing white powder was sent to its office. As a result of these threats, the newspaper had to hire armed guards (for details about the controversy, see the Gun Debate section at By mid-January 2013, the state legislature of New York weighed in and passed a new state law giving gun owners the right to remove their names from the database and impose a 120-day moratorium before releasing gun-permit information. Daniel Sui Due to mounting public pressure, The Journal News is distinguished took down the map and permit database from its professor and chair Web site on Jan. 18, 2013. of geography at Although the interactive map existed for a short The Ohio State 27 days, it was viewed and searched more than University; e-mail: 1.2 million times. And while the interactive maps have been taken down, static maps showing "the 12 G E O W O R L D / M A R C H 2 O 1 3 gun owners next door" (and all related comments and debates about these maps) likely will exist in perpetuity. These gun maps may go down in history as one of those "maps that matter" (mapsthatmatter. For the geospatial community, the controversies surrounding the gun map could serve as a poignant moment to weigh in on one of the most complex and contentious issues facing American society today. A Map of What? To help have more meaningful conversations on the topic, let's first look at what the gun maps are or aren't. After combing through the pro- and anti- commentaries about the gun maps, I feel that many people are taking the maps at "face value" and not really supporting or opposing what the maps truly represent. Cartographically speaking, the maps produced by The Journal News are simple dot maps, with each dot representing the owner of a pistol permit licensed by Westchester and Rockland counties. In the state of New York, there are five major types of permits: unrestricted carry, premises, business, employment, target and hunting. The Journal News obtained all permit categories, but the type (or types) of permit issued to each individual wasn't released. Most importantly, being included in these maps doesn't necessarily mean the individual at a specific location owns a weapon, it just implies that they're licensed to do so. New York law doesn't require a permit to own a long gun such as a rifle or shotgun, so these maps don't show everyone in the neighborhood who owns a gun. The maps also don't allow users to search by names and addresses, but each gun-permit holders' names and address are displayed when each dot is clicked. State law in New York says that the names and addresses of all permit holders are public record and must be disclosed. Therefore, there's no right to privacy regarding handgun ownership in New York. Under New York's Freedom of Information Law, The Journal News obtained the gun-permit data through requests to the individual county clerks. The Journal News didn't make the database used to produce the map downloadable, so the information can't be further analyzed or processed/mined. Missing the Mark That's enough basic "nitty gritty" about what the socalled gun maps are or aren't. But both sides of this controversy missed the target quite a bit about what they're supporting or opposing.

Articles in this issue

Links on this page

Archives of this issue

view archives of GeoWorld - GeoWorld March 2013