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Uh-Oh: Bill Keller Mocks Permit-Map Burglary Concerns of Gun Owners, Day After Report of Related Burglary

Former New York Times executive editor (now op-ed columnist) Bill Keller addressed on Monday the controversial publication of a map showing the names and addresses of handgun permit owners by The Journal News of White Plains, New York, in "Invasion of the Data Snatchers." Keller eventually came down against what the paper had done.

But Keller also mocked the safety concerns of gun owners: "I don’t buy the gun owners’ assertion that the disclosure is an invitation to burglars in search of firearms; on the contrary, the publicity sends criminals the same message as those front-door notices of your home alarm system: Try next door." Did he miss the NewsDay story Sunday suggesting that very thing may have happened in White Plains?

Keller set up a hypothetical.

You are the editor of a local newspaper. A reporter on your staff comes to you having obtained (by legal means) one of the following....The reporter proposes to publish the names and home addresses and map them on a large graphic, all part of an article on “The [drunks/abortionists/racists/poor/gays/cheats/scary dogs] next door.”

....

My hypothetical editor’s choice is inspired, of course, by an unhypothetical event: the decision by The Journal News in White Plains to map the names and addresses of 33,614 handgun permit holders in two surrounding counties, for a project called “The gun owner next door.” I’ll return to that decision, but the striking thing was the volume and venom of the reader backlash: thousands of comments -- and not only from gun owners -- overwhelmingly outraged, some of them suggesting that Journal News journalists deserved to have their identities stolen, their homes burgled, their children taunted or, predictably, to be shot.

Keller came out reluctantly against the project, but there's at least one sentence that could have been avoided with a little more diligent research of local events.

Which brings me back to The Journal News and its gun project. I sympathize with the paper’s effort to dramatize the commonplace reality of gun ownership at a time when the subject is so sadly on our minds. I don’t buy the gun owners’ assertion that the disclosure is an invitation to burglars in search of firearms; on the contrary, the publicity sends criminals the same message as those front-door notices of your home alarm system: Try next door. It’s also conceivable that the attention will prompt some owners to lock up unsecured weapons.

Yet that very "invitation to burglars in search of firearms" may have answered in White Plains, New York, according to a NewsDay account posted Sunday afternoon: "Journal News gun permit map used by burglars to target White Plains home?"

A White Plains residence pinpointed on a controversial handgun permit database was burglarized Saturday, and the burglars' target was the homeowner's gun safe.

At least two burglars broke into a home on Davis Avenue at 9:30 p.m. Saturday but were unsuccessful in an attempt to open the safe, which contained legally owned weapons, according to a law enforcement source. One suspect was taken into custody, the source said.

Blogger Tom Maguire commented, "for Bill Keller to blithely dismiss a possible connection his paper hasn't even reported strikes me as yet another example of their famous 'All The New That Fits The Agenda' reporting."

Times media reporter David Carr took a tougher line against the paper's action.

....More problematic was the closeness in time to the Newtown massacre, which served to cast suspicion and guilt in tendentious ways. By dropping the records into the maelstrom of a mass shooting, was The Journal News merely putting data-driven link bait out there?....It is one thing to have a public database available that lets me look up whether the neighbor I am feuding with might have a gun permit. It is quite another to publish the names and addresses of all my neighbors who own guns. The decision lacked a rationale. It was what we in the business call “b matter” in search of a lead.