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Originally published Saturday, January 19, 2013 at 9:54 AM

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NY gun control law limits access to permit info

New York's new gun control law may be the nation's toughest, but it also includes broad new privacy provisions allowing would-be gun owners to shield their identities from reporters and the public.

Associated Press

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WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. —

New York's new gun control law may be the nation's toughest, but it also includes broad new privacy provisions allowing would-be gun owners to shield their identities from reporters and the public.

It is part of the swift reaction to a suburban New York City newspaper's publication last month of an interactive map with the names and addresses of thousands of permit holders. The Journal News defended its publication of public records, but it was inundated with complaints and even threats, and on Friday the newspaper pulled the information from its website.

"I am personally grateful that the Journal News will never be able to do something as dangerous and idiotic as this again," said Republican state Sen. Greg Ball, who helped draft the provision.

The provision allows handgun permit applicants to ask that their personal information be kept secret for any of several reasons: if they are police officers, witnessed a crime, served on a jury in a criminal case or are victims of domestic violence. More vaguely, they can claim that they fear for their safety or they might be subjected to unwanted harassment.

Permit holders can also ask that their personal information from previous applications be withdrawn from the public record, for the same reasons.

Claiming the possibility of harassment is "a little bit of a stretch," said Diane Kennedy, president of the New York News Publishers Association. "It just makes it really easy for anyone to opt out without really giving a particularly strong reason."

Journal News Media Group publisher Janet Hasson said she too was disappointed with the broad nature of the provision. In a statement after the newspaper took the gun permit names and addresses down, she said the new law didn't require the removal but "we believe that doing so complies with its spirit." The interactive map had been viewed more than 1.2 million times since it was posted Dec. 23.

Hasson wrote that the decision to remove the names "is not a concession to critics that no value was served by the posting of the map in the first place."

"Nor is our decision made because we were intimidated by those who threatened the safety of our staffers," she said. "We know our business is a controversial one, and we do not cower."

The Journal News published the gun permit information in Westchester and Rockland counties to accompany an article titled "The Gun Owner Next Door: What You Don't Know About the Weapons in Your Neighborhood" as part of the newspaper's coverage following the Newtown, Conn., school shooting.

While news and free-speech advocates bemoaned the new law as a restriction on public records, the fallout from the Journal News case also has prompted a vigorous discussion among media organizations about whether to publish such information and how to do it. Media columnists at The New York Times and the Poynter Institute, for example, criticized the Journal News for not putting more context to the personal information. Some have suggested the same public data could have been used to create a map showing handgun permits by ZIP code or city block without revealing specific names and addresses.

"Was the publication of names and addresses with an interactive map newsworthy and beneficial to the public? In the eyes of many that was not necessarily the case," said Robert Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government.

After the map was posted, gun-rights activists complained that permit owners were being stigmatized, almost like sex criminals, for following the legal requirements of handgun ownership. And they felt the map could guide burglars to their homes. Police groups said the map could lead ex-convicts to the homes of the officers who had put them away.

Opponents of the release of the information retaliated by posting the addresses of some Journal News staffers online, and threats were phoned in and suspicious packages delivered. The newspaper eventually posted armed guards at its offices but did not remove the handgun-permit data from the website until Friday, after it had been seen almost 1.2 million times.

"While the new law does not require us to remove the data, we believe that doing so complies with its spirit," Hasson said.

The controversy even prompted legislation 1,000 miles away. Mississippi state Sen. Will Longwitz said that because of the Journal News piece, he will file a bill to exempt concealed-weapon permits from that state's public records act.

As criticism grew, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was pushing for a new state gun control law, also in response to the Newtown massacre. He fast-tracked the legislation, saying it had to move quickly to prevent a buying spree of guns that would be outlawed.

When Ball and others insisted on the privacy provision, there was little opposition. One exception was Democrat Thomas Abinanti, who called it an assault on the First Amendment.

"The only way to control government is to know what it's doing," Abinanti said. "Now we are going to make these gun permits secret."

Abinanti said Friday that "legislators and good-government groups and editorials are now waking up to what happened." He said he expects the Legislature to consider a "cleanup amendment."

In the meantime, Freeman, from the Committee on Open Government, said the Journal News case offers a reminder to news organizations of what he called "the Aretha Franklin principle." It's based on the scene in "The Blues Brothers" movie where Franklin sings "You Better Think."

"We have to think it through," he said. "What are the ramifications of our potential actions?"

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Associated Press writers Michael Gormley in Albany, N.Y., and Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Miss., and AP researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.

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