NEW YORK – A county clerk justified his refusal to release data about handgun permit owners to a New York newspaper by envisioning a stalker using Google Earth to peer at his victim’s Christmas tree.
Putnam County Clerk Dennis Sant said his decision to deny a request from the Journal News for information about the nearly 11,000 permit holders in his county was based on concern that criminals would use the newspaper’s interactive database as a guide for zeroing in on potential targets.
The issue is turning the already controversial publication of the database into an open government standoff.
In December, the Journal News published online maps with the names and addresses of pistol permit holders in Rockland and Westchester counties, information it sought from public records after the school shooting in Newtown, Conn. It said Putnam County asked for more time to provide similar details.
The Gannet Co.-owned newspaper’s website lohud.com, sparked a torrent of criticism from across the country with an interactive database readers could click on.
Sant said in an interview that the law gives him the prerogative to refuse to release public information if it endangers the public.
“This certainly puts my public in danger,” he said.
While anyone can come into his office and file the necessary paperwork to request information about individual permits, Sant said the difference is that the Journal News plans to publish the information in a way that makes it accessible to all. That combines with the power of current technology to make it easier for criminals to target those who hold handgun permits.
“First of all, it tells criminals who doesn’t have a gun,” he said. “It gives a burglar or it gives a thief a map.”
The request involved only handgun permits – shotguns and rifles are not included. About 315,000 people live in Putnam County.
The denial of similar information to the Wall Street Journal by New York City’s police commissioner led to a case that in 1981 was decided in favor of the newspaper. But Sant maintained that times have changed.
“The technology today is so different,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the opportunity of bringing to the magistrates that this is not 30 years ago.”
The denial was backed by local elected officials, including County Executive MaryEllen Odell. She called the paper “reckless” for publishing the information from the neighboring counties.
The Journal News did not respond to several requests for comment on Thursday, and did not make a statement in its own story about Sant’s denial. But it has stood behind the project since the database went viral.
President and Publisher Janet Hasson has issued statements maintaining that residents of Putnam County have a right to see the information.
It brought in armed security to two of its offices, and staff members on Wednesday found an envelope in the mail that contained a suspicious white powder. That powder was later found to be nontoxic.
The paper published a similar database in 2006.
Sant was in office at that time. He said he agreed to release the information then, but it was not stored electronically, and the paper did not pursue the release after he detailed the expenses involved in preparing the names and addresses manually.
Experts say the county may have a difficult time defending the refusal, because New York state law classifies the data as public.
“The argument has been made and rejected,” said Robert Freeman of the State Committee on Open Government. “There’s never been any indication that disclosure resulted in any jeopardy.”
Edward S. Rudofsky, a New York attorney who specializes in the First Amendment, added, “I don’t see why technology makes this any more or less sensitive than it would otherwise be.” However, he did say that cultural and political changes since the 1981 decision could mean a different decision if the denial results in legal action.
“It would not surprise me if this is taken up if a court has a different view of this,” Rudofsky said.
Several attempts to pass a law that would shield gun permit holders’ personal information have failed to pass the legislature in recent years.
As the issue shifts from the question of whether to publish the database to whether the information should be public, the Journal News is getting more support from other news organizations.
“While we may have more subtle views about the Journal News decision to publish this database, I think there is a broad consensus that the kind of resistance to the FOIL application that we’re seeing in Putnam County is intolerable,” said Rex Smith, editor of the Times Union in Albany, N.Y. “This to me would seem to be a clear case.”