One day after igniting a firestorm of criticism, The Roanoke Times decided Monday to remove from its Web site a list of Virginians licensed to carry concealed weapons.
The list, published as part of an opinion column about open records that ran Sunday in the newspaper’s New River Valley Current section, was taken down Monday afternoon out of concern that it might include names that should not have been made public, president and publisher Debbie Meade said.
Although she had received no official word from Virginia State Police, which provided the data at the paper’s request, Meade said she was concerned enough about complaints from readers to act out of an abundance of caution.
“Our concern is that if the information should have been protected and it wasn’t, then we don’t want to run it,” Meade said.
The list, which included both the names and street addresses of about 135,000 Virginians with permits to carry concealed weapons, was linked to a column by editorial writer Christian Trejbal that ran in the Current section.
Hundreds of readers complained on the newspaper’s message board and to a gun-rights group that publishing the names of concealed-weapons permit holders violated the privacy of law-abiding citizens and gave potential criminals information that would help them find victims.
“By publishing that list, you’ve created a windfall for criminals,” said Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League . Van Cleave and others argued that convicted felons, barred from buying guns at stores, could use the list to select homes to burglarize in their search for firepower.
Another concern was for the safety of domestic abuse victims, who might want to carry concealed weapons for their own protection but don’t want an abusive former partner to know where they live. With those addresses now public, “the stalkers and the rapists and those people are more empowered,” Van Cleave said.
Similar concerns were shared by the director of interactive learning for The Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in Florida.
“You could take that information and you could do a lot with it,” said Howard Finberg. “I would say it raises some serious concerns about the unintended consequences of such actions.”
Critics have also questioned why Trejbal chose such a polarizing topic as guns to illustrate a column meant to discuss Sunshine Week, a national initiative to promote the importance of open government and public records.
“Could the point he wanted to make — highlighting Sunshine Week — been done in a different way that would not raise the potential of someone doing something with that list?” Finberg asked.
Meade said the pros and cons of running the list were discussed in advance.
The decision to publish the list was made, with Meade’s knowledge, by Editorial Page Editor Dan Radmacher, who was out of the office Monday.
“I think Dan would say that we probably underestimated the kind of response that this would prompt,” Meade said. In hindsight, she said, “I think we could have asked for a broader and deeper discussion.”
However, Meade said heated opposition to Trejbal’s column was not a factor in pulling the list.
A written statement released by the newspaper stressed that the decision to remove the list was made “out of a sense of caution and concern for the public” that was based on questions about whether some names should have been included.
The newspaper is in the process of asking state police to verify the data and clarify whether it can be made public, Meade said.
It was not clear Monday exactly what category of names should possibly not have been released.
But if a revised list is ever published, Van Cleave said his organization is already discussing ways to fight back, which could possibly include boycotting major advertisers and making public as much personal information about Trejbal and other editors as the group can find.
“If you’re going to light us up like a Christmas tree and invade our privacy, then we want you to know what it’s like to live in a glass house,” Van Cleave said.
Trejbal, who said he has received threats from some angry readers, said he was disappointed that “so many people have missed the point about the column. It was not fundamentally about guns. It was fundamentally about open government.”
While expressing sympathy for concealed-weapons permit holders who might have been put in a difficult position by publication of the list, Trejbal added that information about individual permit holders is readily available at any courthouse.
“Did we make it easier [to obtain the information]? Yes,” he said. “But it’s still a public record.”
But Trejbal’s “mean-spirited” column did more than expedite fishing expeditions, Van Cleave said.
It also unfairly compared law-abiding gun owners to sex offenders, he said, by noting that “a state that eagerly puts sex offender data online complete with an interactive map could easily do the same with gun permits, but it does not.”
As Dale Hawley wrote on the newspaper’s message board, such a comment ignores the fact that people who apply to carry a concealed weapon for legitimate reasons of self-protection must undergo background checks to ensure they have no criminal record.
“That you don’t understand this is, at best, terrible ignorance and at worst smacks of prejudice and yellow journalism,” Hawley wrote on the online forum, which had generated more than 300 comments by midday Monday.
Another poster wrote: “I’ve moved twice to get away from a violent ex. Now I have to move again. I really appreciate you publishing my address. Gee, thanks.”
Van Cleave said he has received more than 500 angry calls and e-mails, including two from state legislators.
Past gun-related controversies have been “like a firecracker” by comparison, he said. “This one is like a thermonuclear bomb.”