But I thought guns made us all safer: fear and intimidation in Westchester County

The New York Times has a revealing article about the suburban New York newspaper, The Journal News, and its decision a few weeks ago to publish a list of names and addresses as well as an interactive map of all of the people who hold handgun permits in Westchester and Rockland counties.  The print and online edition of the article, “The Gun Owner Next Door:  What You Don’t Know About the Weapons in Your Neighborhood,” became a nationwide sensation, and the Times’s summary of the story so far documents an amazing display of narcissism and projection:

Calls and e-mails grew so threatening that the paper’s president and publisher, Janet Hasson, hired armed guards to monitor the newspaper’s headquarters in White Plains and its bureau in West Nyack, N.Y.

Personal information about editors and writers at the paper has been posted online, including their home addresses and information about where their children attended school; some reporters have received notes saying they would be shot on the way to their cars; bloggers have encouraged people to steal credit card information of Journal News employees; and two packages containing white powder have been sent to the newsroom and a third to a reporter’s home (all were tested by the police and proved to be harmless).

“As journalists, we are prepared for criticism,” Ms. Hasson said, as she sat in her meticulously tended office and described the ways her 225 employees have been harassed since the article was published. “But in the U.S., journalists should not be threatened.” She has paid for staff members who do not feel safe in their homes to stay at hotels, offered guards to walk employees to their cars, encouraged employees to change their home telephone numbers and has been coordinating with the local police.

Was The Journal News right or wrong to publish this information in this fashion?  Most unusually, I have had a hard time formulating an opinion on this.  I can see the arguments from both sides:  on the one hand, it’s publicly available information, and I don’t think there is any evidence that the article was written in order to intimidate gun permit holders.  On the other hand, it seems like an unseemly invasion of one’s privacy to have not just your name and address published, but to find your household identified on an interactive map merely because you applied for a handgun owner’s permit.  And after all, this isn’t data about the actual presence of guns, just of gun permit applications–who knows about the unpermitted guns out there, and what about those who took out a permit but who no longer own the gun in question?  It’s fairly slushy data.

I am sure the newspaper could have come up with a way of raising the issue of the number of handgun permits in these counties and their distribution in various neighborhoods without identifying individuals who were after all only complying with New York law.  Nevertheless, the efforts to intimidate or instill fear in the people at The Journal News are utterly reprehensible, and appear for the most part to have originated outside of Westchester and Rockland counties.

But that’s not exactly what I want to address in this post.  I want to note the theme of fear that permeates the New York Times analysis of the case, and specifically the fear expressed not by unarmed citizens, not by the neighbors whose houses were implicitly flagged as gun-free in Westchester and Rockland counties, but rather the fear expressed by those who have guns in their households.  According to “Scott Sommavilla, president of the 35,000-member Westchester County Firearm Owners Association,”

“They’re really upset about it,” Mr. Sommavilla said. “They’re afraid for their families.”

Why, if guns make one safer at home as gun manufacturers and gun owners constantly tell us, would gun owners be “afraid,” I wonder?  I wish the reporter had pressed Sommavilla on this, and had asked him why the publication of this article made his constituency as identified handgun permit carriers more fearful.  But this fear, I would argue, appears to be an emotional or temperamental condition of their lives, one that is unmoved or unimproved by gun ownership.

This might be merely of psychological or sociological interest if gun owners didn’t try to spread their fear throughout their communities through criminal as well as legal means.  Fear appears to be not just a central motivating force in their lives, but also one of their favorite tactics in defense of what they perceive to be their “rights.”  Intimidation and creating fear are central to the bullying tactics of the gun rights absolutists:

[Author of the article Dwight R.] Worley said he had received mainly taunting phone calls sprinkled in with callers who said “you should die.” He found broken glass outside of his home and would not say how much time he was spending there right now. But he said he had largely been supported by the newsroom.

The Journal News’s features editor, Mary Dolan, said that while she was not involved with the publication of the article, her home address and phone numbers were published online in retaliation. She has had to disconnect her phone and has “taken my social media presence and just put it on the shelf for a while.” She has also received angry phone calls from former neighbors in Westchester whose gun information was published.

She said she was especially concerned about the part-time staff members who write up wedding anniversary and church potluck announcements who have been harassed. But she supports the paper for its decision.

“It sparked a conversation that needed to occur in this country, and it revealed tactics that will be employed when gun owners feel their rights are threatened,” she said.

Emphasis mine, especially on the use of the word feel by Ms. Dolan.  It’s all about their feelings.  The rest of us don’t matter–their fear is all that matters to them.

Fearful people are trying to make sure the rest of us are just as afraid of the world and of each other as they are.  Fear is what drives the entire firearms industry in this country.  Gun manufacturers stoke these fears, and they are brilliant manipulators of people who are instinctually fearful.  But no number of guns apparently can ever assuage their fears.

I wonder if someday we’ll discover in the secret archives of the gun manufacturers the psychological and marketing research such as we know the Big Tobacco undertook in order to get people addicted to cigarettes and inspire brand loyalty.  They’re just trying to move their product, a product desired by the fearful that can only further inflame those fears.

35 thoughts on “But I thought guns made us all safer: fear and intimidation in Westchester County

  1. Well they are totally within their rights to publish this and I am for it although of course it could be said that will just encourage people to have illegal guns instead, so who knows. Like you, I thought the gun owners’ idea was that if they were known to be armed they would be safer. And of course, I am sure it is all about marketing.


  2. Indeed its difficult to form solid opinion about the article.

    People buy guns for many reasons. Macho complex, fear, wish to kill and ignorance to mention just a few of the reasons. Clearly, many violent people have gun. They are not shy about using them. So much for the 2nd Amendment.

    It’s clearly an open violent discussion.


  3. I teetered on the brink of feeling the same way about the “interactive map” part, which seemed a bit like an excessive flourish, but frankly on this issue, I don’t give a damn. Let them go back to Russia and transact their gun rights issues with a more robust governmental apparatus. The spectacle of the “owner” crowd (or, I guess the “applicant” crowd) feeling threatened by the public appearance of the data seems almost too pathetic. [Besides, as the Times also indirectly suggests, if you want to hide information at this point, put it in *print*, which nobody supposedly reads anymore].

    I try to imagine the actionable scenarios in their psyches: hundreds of “anti-gun nuts” breaking into veterinary offices or veterinary supply warehouses to steal thousands of tranquilizer darts, with which they will invade the domiciles-sanctuses of the ‘packing parties and send them and their loved ones off into (temporary) dreamland? Talk about asymmetrical combat. But, given the corporatization of modern journalism, this whole issue is probably a task best left to the electronic “leaks” community. [Notwithstanding the fact that I second the nomination of Assange, yesterday in a different post, for “asshole” certification].


  4. The claim of fear on the part of gun owners is either absurd or pathetic. That a popular response to the supposed fear is itself violent is unsurprising, and only adds detail to the case for stronger gun control.


  5. “But in the U.S., journalists should not be threatened.”

    Exsqueeze me? Like dead and threatened journalists are okay in those banana republics, but not here?

    When the overall paucity of true investigative journalism in America during the past 30 years has led to this adorable response of *surprise* from an editor, is it really any wonder that if a news team reports on a big, violent (non-gangbanger) industry, said industry will threaten *and* get favorable press? Isn’t that why investigative journalism (save the easy, continued public shaming of sex offenders) largely died?

    So, no, the newspaper and its employees shouldn’t have been threatened, but why weren’t they prepared to come back, double-strength, with even more articles about the gun industry at home? Not less speech, kids: More speech.


  6. … and the only folks I’m concerned about are those in the join of Venn diagrams between gun permit applicant and restraining order holder.

    Those are people who have a right both to their fear and to lethal self-defense, in response to an actual, legally-recognized threat.


  7. Well, people claim to be afraid of homosexuals too, which is also a mystery to me. Sometimes they are so frightened they kill our a$$es, with or without guns.

    But that said, gosh! It seems like a smackdown between the First Amendment and the Second Amendment! I’m lovin’it.

    I would also say, I would want to know if the person next door to me was likely to have a gun, because it would cause me either never get into an argument with that person or to move, whichever seems easiest. I also know several moms (not in NY, where almost no one is allowed to keep a gun at home) who ask prior to a playdate whether there is a gun in the house. Are these fun with guns folks suggesting that the high number of fatal accidents involving children finding and playing with guns is simply no one’s business? I guess so.


  8. And now Bloomberg, predictably, has decided to compare the NRA with the New York teachers unions. Those picket signs do hurt if you get hit square on the forehead with one, but really, now, the Tweed Courthouse is neither Homestead nor Haymarket.


  9. It is important to recognize that the main fear that white christian d00d gun owners are seeking to assuage with their guns is that their dickes are small and impotent. The advertising for such weapons as the Bushmaster makes this abundantly clear:


  10. Maybe the teacher’s unions would get more done on behalf of their members if they adopted the NRA’s tactics, such as showing up at Bloomberg’s press conferences armed, issuing death threats to pols who don’t support them, raising money to primary pols who don’t vote with them, and generally create mayhem wherever they go.

    Except: the firearms industry has deep pockets and a strong business interest in protecting their interpretation of the Second Amendment, whereas schoolchildren don’t have much more than lunch or milk money in their pockets.


  11. What strikes me is the disproportionate nature of the response by the gunnies. (Thanks, TR, for that term.) They have published information on *everyone* who works for the Journal News, not just those involved in publishing this article.

    I think the question of what the gun owners are afraid of is a great one: those of us who don’t own guns presumably can’t easily take the guns away, and those who do wouldn’t want to. Unless they fear they will be targets of theft…

    And of course, cgeye is right that there are a small group of people whose addresses and identities should be kept private, because they fear genuine violence from identified people.


  12. Certainly, the paper had every right to publish to map in order to show the public how many guns were in their neighborhood. I question whether names should have been published also since you never know when folks might be trying to stay on the Q.T. for a number of reasons including being stalked by a vicious ex-spouse.
    That said, the emotional reaction of the gunnies (we’re all using it now!) is typical of their way of interacting with society in general and, as my Grandfather used to say, they demonstrate a certain “muddy headed thinking.” They feel persecuted. And that persecution THRILLS them! It makes their fantasy that much more real. It’s a fulfillment of a dream because, you see, they really ARE after us!I believe that the most fanatic of gun owners (gold coin buyers, bomb shelter builders, etc) derive, a certain excitement and reason for being from this Clint Eastwood-style paranoid world view that they espouse. I am not a psychologist, nor do I play one on T.V., but I would bet that the people who shout loudest about guns, the dangers of big government and apocalypse are like the poor sot who killed Treyvon Martin: Somewhat directionless, ordinary people who see a huge gap between the insignificant people they know themselves to be and the stars they see dancing on T.V. And it is a gap that is, unfortunately, most easily bridged with an automatic weapon.


  13. Thanks for a great post, Historiann. As a former journalist, I would defend the right of a newspaper to publish something that is public record. At stake here is the neighbors’ right to know, and the idea is that someone could go to a records’ office and look up who has applied for gun permits in a certain area. Newspapers publish home sales, crime reports, etc. But given the recent context, it looks like the newspaper was not just informing the public but also trying to make a statement against guns. The interactive map was not exactly a responsible way to do that.

    But you have hit it on the fear factor among the pro-gun people who responded with insults, threats, etc. Reminds me a little of the campaign against that historian who did the book on gun ownership in early America. I hate to reopen that controversy (I believe you have written about it before) and I understand there were problems with his research, etc. But the vehemence of the challenges — indeed, it turned into an effort to destroy the guy — was driven by a highly charged emotional response from those who hate to have their guns questioned. But maybe that’s a bad comparison, especially coming from a non-historian with limited information about that situation. ??


  14. I think I’m leaning the same way as you, Historiann: I have some qualms on principle about the Journal News’ precise tactics, although I think that’s a matter of details rather than the broader question of “can we write about this?” BUT, the response to the article by some seriously paranoid, raging people goes far beyond anything the paper did in terms of unethical, endangering behavior. Methinks there may be a real difference between the majority of people who have applied for a handgun owner’s permit, and the kind of person who vandalizes an office or issues anonymous death threats. I hope so, anyway.

    Tangentially related to this, I was listening to the Diane Rehm Show today, in which Rehm and most of her interviewees were in general agreement about the value of some kind of legislative restriction of military-style assault weapons. One caller, mimicking innumerable bad undergrad thought pieces, argued against any ban, saying, “There’s a thing called the Second Amendment…” His point, laughably and frighteningly, was that he wrongly believed that the 2nd Amendment guarantees the right of private citizens to defend themselves with such weaponry against the government itself.

    In spite of myself, I’m stunned to ponder the idea that someone could be that (willfully?) ignorant of case law that anyone could look up…or that someone could delude himself that any governmental authority would say, “Please shoot at us if you see us coming”…or that someone believes that a gun – any gun – will magically protect him from arrest if the U.S. federal government decides that he needs to be taken into custody. But this psychotic magical thinking certainly could explain some of the threatening response that the Journal News has received.


  15. Heh. Out here in Colorado, people are pissed off that it’s taking 8+ days for their background checks to clear, and they’re also resisting paying an extra fee to fund the CBI to process their background checks further on the grounds that it’s their “Constitutional right.” Well, the Second Amendment says that they have the right to “keep and bear arms,” not to purchase them in an expeditious manner.

    Why we continue to let the delusions of the few dictate the public safety of the many truly is a puzzle.

    And thanks, Rad! You’re thinking of Michael Bellesiles’s Arming America (2000), which was seized upon by gunnies & which they used to force his firing by Emory University although he was a tenured associate.

    I re-read that book with some grad students last year, and decided that he was more a fool than a knave. His book was very flawed, as he insisted on looking only at *some* evidence and on reading it in a curiously one-dimensional fashion, always in the way that flattered his thesis. But I see that more as evidence that he wanted to write a BIG book that made a splash and publish with a trade press, rather than evidence that he was out to defraud his profession. My students and I also talked about the importance of peer review, and the fact that publishing with Knopf meant that his ms. wasn’t vetted by other researchers in the field.

    I sincerely wish he had been more careful and more nuanced in his analysis, as I think his major argument–the selling of the Second Amendment as a business strategy for Colt Mfg. after the Civil War–was a really important insight. But he exaggerated in his reading of the evidence, and overlooked lots of other evidence, in order to play down the importance of the gun in early American history.

    My bottom line is that I don’t think he is a bad guy, and I don’t think he should have lost his job over that book. The profession renders its judgment about books over time, but the push to punish Bellesiles was clearly pressed by the gunnies who were gunning for him. There are many other historians guilty of much shoddier (or much more boring) scholarship, yet they still have their tenured positions. However, they didn’t take on the firearms industry in their scholarship, so nobody notices outside of the few experts in their fields.


  16. In 2008 I donated a small sum to the Obama campaign and was vaguely alarmed to see my name and address appear, with map, when I googled my name. But while my instinctive reaction was to feel some anxiety, the reasoning part of my brain said this was a form of political speech and public. Certainly no one gave me grief about it. I think the newspaper should do a follow-up piece asking just what these gunnies are afraid of.

    And as the New Yorker pointed out last week, many gun-nuts think exactly that the Second Amendment gives them the right to be armed against their own government.


  17. donated a small sum to the Obama campaign

    As noted, such information has always been public access if you knew where to look. I researched political donations in prospective neighborhoods before I bought my house. I didn’t want to live amongst, for example, the gunnies. FWIW, I live in Howard Dean country.


  18. Wow. That level of real estate research has never occurred to me. Doesn’t avoiding gated neighborhoods, neighborhoods with HOAs, and/or neighborhoods with mini-mansions and SUVs in the driveway pretty much guarantee that you’ll be living among Democrats, if that’s your style?

    (If you have the choice, that is, of gated or not, HOA or not, minimansion or not.)

    Buying houses more than 40 years old is another strategy.


  19. Buying houses more than 40 years old is another strategy.


    I would have thought that cars on blocks in the yard would be a tell but where I live, it is not. The cars might be art, raised beds, in the process of conversion to SVO, etc. We live in a DIY part of town and that swings all sorts of ways. (Hey! We have a swingers club nearby too…) Anyway, I ended up on a very kid-friendly block in a city neighborhood of mixed-vintage detached homes (infill). It is very kid friendly and during the summer, all the kids on the block run riot on the street. There are always some adults paying attention and the kids have some autonomy.

    When I moved here, my one friend in town’s primary mission was getting a master’s degree so that he could emigrate to a less violent country. He didn’t want his son to grow up around so many guns (in the hands of either his neighbors or the police). He accomplished that goal and got the heck out of Dodge, as they say.


  20. Many normal people think the Second Amendment’s purpose is to guarantee individuals a right to protect themselves against the government. My mother, for example, is about as liberal a person as you’re ever going to find, and she expressed this very argument to me the other day. I was so surprised, but I shouldn’t have been. That’s how successful the gun lobby has been in making their crackpot theories mainstream.

    My understanding (and folks here can correct me if I’m wrong, since you’re much more qualified) is that while the writings of some of the framers of the Constitution expressed this view, I don’t see that it actually made it into the Constitution itself. The Constitution specifically states that Congress can call out the “well-regulated” militias to suppress insurrection, which I take to mean that the U.S. government isn’t going to be very understanding if people decide they have the unilateral right to rebel. Also, didn’t we have an entire war to decide this question?


  21. What part of y’know, the Feds have borderline war-crime bioweapons, ANFO/MOAB bombs and nukes do gunnies (so tempted to go say Gunne Sax folk) not understand?

    Always outmatched, always outgunned — which is why non-violent worked, because it still assumed that the only way protesters could get FE/soldiers to stop shooting is to create some kind of kinship risk.


  22. http://gawker.com/5974190/here-is-a-list-of-all-the-assholes-who-own-guns-in-new-york-city



    for more threats.

    I do think there is a reasonable fear of gun theft though, like if people are planning to steal guns, you don’t wanna give them a list of where the guns are at. However, of course, responsible gun owners should have their guns in the safe or whatever, so it seems a bit moot.


  23. The word “fear” probably should not have been used. “Concern” would have been better. My concern about this privacy issue is the same as telling people you have certain valuables in your home that really should not be made public. Handgun licensing requires a background check and a judges consent before it is issued. Why the rest of the public needs to know you have a permit when in fact you have passed some very rigorous investigative process does not seem rational.


  24. To turn it around, why shouldn’t the public know? Property records are public. Marriage licenses are public. Court records are public, including bankruptcy filings, in which filers have to list all their property, not just their guns. Dog licenses are public, even. I can think of half a dozen good reasons why someone might want to look up why another person is licensed to carry a gun. Once something is a public record, the info is out there.


  25. Marriage licenses, at least in some states, are no longer accessible by the public. State websites have been taken down, and data that once was public must now be paid for.

    *That’s* the rentiers’ opportunity that will come on the heels of this outcry — only people who can afford access, will get it, even though the public aspect of ‘public records’ is centuries-established law.

    If there already isn’t ALEC-extruded and -proposed legislation for each state to implement gag orders and privatization for all gun sale and licensing records, I’ll eat my tinfoil hat….


  26. The thing that gets me about this whole thing (although I’m with Historiann on the not-so-sure-about-publishing side), is that at this very moment there are NRA nutters arguing that the reason school shootings happen is that shooters know nobody in the school has a gun! By that logic, how is publishing the list of places that there are likely to be guns not an *improvement* to those people’s safety? Not that that logic is even vaguely saleable, but still. The inconsistency! I just can’t get used to it.


  27. Right. More guns makes us all safer and equals less crime, unless it makes gun owners “feel scared,” then more guns make them more vulnerable, so they buy more guns and get more scared, rinse, repeat.


  28. The key to anti gun rhetoric is to talk about guns instead of people, and if they talk about people to be sure they simply say “people”

    at NO time will they differentiate spree killers, maniacs, and criminals from a hundred million or so GOOD American citizens who have firearms to SAFE LIFE.

    Scapegoating and stereotyping (ie hate) are key to their “logic”

    the ignorant fall for this


  29. Pingback: Wrung out. | Historiann

  30. Pingback: Just another day at a university in cowboy country fantasyland (aka the U.S.A.) | Historiann

Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.