By JOSH DAWSEY
An upstate New York county official added fuel to a national debate over gun control Wednesday by denying a newspaper’s request for pistol permit records in a move she acknowledged was illegal.
Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell, a Republican, said giving the handgun records to the Journal News of Westchester County would put her “constituents at risk” and would be immoral and unethical, even if required under the law.
The newspaper has drawn international attention since Dec. 22, when it published an online map with the names and addresses of 44,000 registered handgun owners in Westchester and Rockland counties. The paper’s decision has been dissected on cable news for more than a week, getting praise from gun-control advocates and condemnation from local gun owners who say they were endangered.
Ms. Odell said the newspaper had acted irresponsibly in reaction to the Newtown, Conn., school shootings.
“I’m not going to follow a law that’s going to put my constituents’ lives in jeopardy just because of some frivolous action by an entity who clearly wants to sensationalize news for profit and to increase circulation,” Ms. Odell said. “This invasion of privacy is obviously putting all our constituents at risk.” She said she would fulfill the paper’s request only under a court order.
Ms. Odell’s action drew the ire of open-records advocates. Robert Freeman, director of the New York Committee on Open Government, a state agency, said government officials are obligated to follow laws, even unpopular ones.
“It seems to me the people in government should abide by the law and be role models,” Mr. Freeman said.
Ms. Odell said the law was written before Internet search engines made such information easily available. She said she would lobby to change the state’s public-information laws and planned a news conference Thursday to explain her decision.
Journal News Publisher Janet Hasson said the paper was “disappointed and troubled” by the denial. She hasn’t decided whether to pursue court action to force the records release.
“We’re going to wait and see what they have to say at the press conference,” she said. “We’re going to take this one step at a time.”
Ms. Hasson said the Journal News decided to publish the information after discussing whether a similar shooting could happen in New York, and she argued residents should know who legally owns guns and where the guns are. Authorities have said the alleged Newtown gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza—who took his own life—used guns his mother purchased legally.
Ms. Hasson said much of the outrage came from outside the paper’s coverage area, and that she hired security to protect the newsroom.
Similar databases of gun permit holders, including one last year from the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., have drawn less scrutiny, said Kelly McBride, a senior ethicist at The Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank. But social media, coupled with a fresh tragedy, heaped attention on this database, she said.
Ms. McBride said she isn’t convinced the newspaper clearly articulated the map’s journalistic purpose. “You’ve printed a list of where all the guns are and the criminals could go steal them all,” she said, adding: “You don’t just do things because you can. You do things because there’s an absolute purpose of good.”
Ms. McBride also cautioned governments against restricting access to public records. For instance, after reporters requested autopsy photos of Nascar driver Dale Earnhardt, Florida passed a law restricting access to medical examiner records. The result, she said, “harms the public good.”