Acting on widespread criticism of a Westchester County newspaper's publication of a database of handgun permit holders, Putnam County's clerk appeared before the media Thursday to explain why he's denying the paper's request for a list of names from that county.
Joined by other county and state officials in the appearance at the Putnam County Courthouse in Carmel, County Clerk Dennis Sant said his refusal to release the public records requested by The Journal News was a matter of public safety.
"We're not talking about the rule of law here," Sant said. "We're talking about endangering our citizens."
On Dec. 23, the White Plains-based Journal News published an online map on its website, lohud.com, with the names and addresses of pistol permit holders in Westchester and Rockland counties. Critics have slammed the database release as an invasion of privacy.
State Sen. Greg Ball (R-Patterson), appearing on Fox News' "America Live" Thursday, suggested that readers cancel their subscriptions to the Journal-News which sought the information after the Dec. 14 massacre in Newtown, Conn., in which gunman Adam Lanza shot his mother dead, then drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 20 children and six staff members before turning the gun on himself. Westchester and Rockland counties complied with the paper's request, but Sant said Tuesday that Putnam would refuse, and on Thursday he suggested existing Freedom of Information laws are outdated.
"These laws were written more than 30 years ago," Sant said. "Thirty years ago, we didn't have computers. We didn't have Facebook. We didn't have social media and we certainly didn't have Google maps. And I think that's what really broke the camel's back on this request."
Ball, whose 40th Senate District includes eastern Putnam and parts of Westchester, said he'll introduce legislation in the Senate to keep handgun permit information confidential except to prosecutors and law enforcement agencies.
Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell attended Thursday's news conference and supported Sant's denial, calling publication of the data "reckless" and saying families would be put at risk if the information is released.
But Robert Freeman, executive director of the state's Committee on Open Government, said Putnam is violating state law if it withholds the information.
Freeman said the Journal News could appeal the denial within Putnam County government. If a second denial occurs, the newspaper could take the county to court, he said.
Lawmakers also plan to hold a press conference in Rockland County Friday.
"This interactive map can now be used by those who seek to hurt people and has created a public safety nightmare," Ball said. "Just because it's not illegal [to publish] doesn't mean it's not a violation of common sense."
He suggested the paper should have published a map of gun violators who have made illegal gun purchases instead of exposing law-abiding gun owners.
"Take a look at that map. Several of those dots, probably hundreds of those dots, are probably victims of domestic violence with abusive exes in their backgrounds, stalkers in their backgrounds," Ball said. "And the idiots at the Journal News now open up your privacy in a very public way."
Joanne Wallenstein, founder of community news blog Scarsdale 10583, disputed the privacy issue. "The gun owner right to privacy violates my right to safety," she said on the chat.
'ALL PARENTS SHOULD HAVE THE RIGHT TO KNOW'
Assemb. Thomas Abinanti (D-Greenburgh) criticized Ball's proposal and said he'll work to defeat it in the Assembly.
"In a democracy, we don't want the police to determine what newspapers can publish," Abinanti told Newsday Westchester. "All parents should have the right to know whether their neighbor has a gun in the house before they let their kid go over to play."
Responding to the argument by some critics that publishing the list makes guns susceptible to theft, Abinanti referenced Westchester County's "safe storage" law he said he helped pass about 10 years ago as a member of the county's Board of Legislators.
"If you follow the Westchester County law that requires safe storage of all weapons, you don't have to worry about a thief stealing your gun -- follow the law and you don't have to worry," Abinanti said. "Whatever happened to the argument the [National Rifle Association] makes that homes are safer when thieves know there's a gun in the house?"
Abinanti described the outcry over the gun permit map as politically motivated in the aftermath of Newtown. "This whole thing is a big distraction the NRA is creating to shift focus from yet another tragedy and the message it sends: There are too many guns in the hands of too many people who would misuse them," he said.
Thursday's events followed an incident Wednesday in which a suspicious powder was found in an envelope mailed to The Journal News. Tests showed the powder to be harmless, though it has been sent for further testing, officials said.
Meanwhile, the paper is being protected by armed guards.
Publisher Janet Hasson told The New York Times the guards have been posted at its White Plains headquarters and in a satellite office in West Nyack since last week.
On Friday, Rockland County officials, led by Legis. Frank Sparaco (R-Valley Cottage), plan to hold a news conference to condemn the permit list's publication and to support Ball's proposal.
With Jillian Sederholm, News12 and The Associated Press