February 15, 2013

Bangor newspaper's request for gun data causes uproar

The newspaper requests personal information on concealed-weapon permit holders, which causes a backlash that stretches from Facebook to the State House.

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

A Bangor newspaper came under withering attack from gun rights advocates, state politicians and hundreds of online readers Thursday after requesting personal information on concealed weapon permit holders from all Maine police departments.

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Gov. Paul LePage displays his concealed-carry permit in a photo posted to his Twitter account Thursday afternoon. "If newspapers would like to know who has concealed weapons permits, then they should know the governor has his," LePage tweeted.

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The Bangor Daily News said it was gathering the information as part of a reporting project on domestic violence and drug abuse.

"The BDN has no intention to release this information publicly," said Anthony Ronzio, the newspaper's director of news and new media, in a prepared statement.

But the newspaper's request, filed under Maine's Freedom of Access Act, was widely attacked as an invasion of privacy and act of provocation linked to the Legislature's pending consideration of a bill that would prevent personal information on permit holders from being made public.

Within hours, critics had established Facebook pages featuring images of handguns and calls for advertiser boycotts and subscription cancellations to the Bangor Daily News.

The dispute echoes a controversy in New York in December, when the Journal News newspaper published a list and interactive online map of all handgun permit holders in two counties. That action triggered condemnation from police and criticism by other media outlets.

Thursday's critics included Republican Gov. Paul LePage, whose office posted on Twitter a photo of LePage displaying his own concealed weapon permit.

"If newspapers would like to know who has concealed weapons permits, then they should know the Governor has his," LePage said in a statement. "I have serious concerns that (the) BDN's request will incite fear among gun owners and non-gun owners alike regarding their safety. There is no reason why these records should be public and I encourage the Legislature to act quickly to make this personal information confidential."

Top Republicans in the Legislature called a news conference at the State House, where House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, said the newspaper was "politicizing" the gun issue.

Senate Minority Leader Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said whether or not to make personal information on gun-permit holders public is a privacy issue.

"I think most people in the state of Maine don't really like organizations out there collecting lists with their names on it," he said. "We have a heated debate (about gun control) going on in this nation and it's going to be a robust debate.

"But for a major daily newspaper -- one with the reputation of the Bangor Daily News -- to engage in something like this, it's just shocking to me."

Shortly after the news conference, Maine Republican Party Chairman Richard Cebra used the dispute as a fundraising pitch in an email blast to supporters.

"This is a reckless overreach by a zealous press that could result in innocent, law-abiding gun owners, and all Mainers being put in danger," Cebra's email read. "We can't stand idly by as the press, liberal politicians and anti-gun special interest groups control the debate and control the message in the media. Help us fight back."

Twenty-nine bills that mention the words "firearm," "gun" or "handgun" in their titles have been submitted this legislative session.

Among the measures is a bill sponsored by Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, that would designate personal information on concealed weapon permits as confidential and make it illegal to release such information to the public.

Assistant House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said he supports Wilson's bill. He said he's "very uncomfortable" with information on permit-holders being available to the public. Some permit holders are women who got them because of domestic-violence threats, he said.

But McCabe said the Republican attack on the Bangor newspaper is "a real distraction from policy issues" surrounding guns.

"It makes it harder for us to do the work we need to do," McCabe said.

Ronzio, the BDN editor, would not speak with a reporter about the controversy. In his prepared statement, he said the newspaper had long planned to request the weapons permit records as part of its news reporting, but the introduction of Wilson's bill sped up the request.

In a separate editor's note posted on the BDN website Thursday afternoon as criticism grew, Ronzio referred to the New York newspaper's treatment of concealed-weapon permits.

"We believe the wholesale publication of permit holder information, as was done recently by a newspaper in New York, is irresponsible," he wrote.

Thibodeau and another Republican legislator, Assistant Senate Majority Leader Roger Katz of Augusta, said the newspaper's statement was incoherent.

"I actually believe at this juncture that the Bangor Daily doesn't intend to release this information," Thibodeau said. "But I still question: Are they trying to create a news story or are they reporting the news?"

David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, said the newspaper's decision will "enrage and upset" permit holders.

If they aren't going to publish the data, "I would question exactly what they want the information for," Trahan said. He wondered whether the request was a "provocative move" taken as the Legislature prepares to consider the bill to keep information about permit holders private.

Swept into the online debate were two of the Bangor newspaper's reporters, who discussed the incident in comments posted on their personal Facebook pages Thursday that were later taken down.

Jen Lynds, who covers Aroostook County, and Mario Moretto, who covers Hancock County, had different opinions of how their newspaper handled the controversy over the request.

Lynds wrote that it is "clear by Ronzio's statement that there was confusion over the newspaper's intent, so it was not handled properly in the first place. And now the fallout comes down on the reporters. And I am sick of feeling that."

Moretto later wrote that newspaper employees should not "bow to accusations of politicizing an issue when we've done nothing of the sort."

After that, Lynds wrote that she and another reporter "have been getting heat fiercely" from law enforcement officials in their coverage areas.

"We have worked hard, as I think we all have, to build relationships with police and the public," Lynds wrote. "And the police are now angry, at least the ones I have talked to."

Damien Pickel, police chief in Milo, in Piscataquis County, said he took no comfort in the Bangor newspaper's assurances that it would not publish personal information about permit holders.

"They say they don't have an intention, but it doesn't say they won't," he said.

In Fort Kent, Police Chief Kenneth Michaud said he received the paper's request Wednesday and will comply. But he said he had reservations.

"The only thing that bothers me is I give a guy's name and if they put that public, now everyone's going to know there's a gun in that house," Michaud said.

Joseph Massey, Waterville's chief, said he's passed the request on to a city attorney, but he doesn't think the information should be public.

"There's always the possibility that someone who wants to steal guns gets ahold of this and waits until someone's not home and burglarizes the home," Massey said.

Trahan, leader of the sportsman's group, said he'll be sending an email blast Thursday to mobilize gun-rights supporters to contact the newspaper about its decision.

"I don't think it can be good for business," Trahan said.

The New York newspaper removed its online map of permit holders in January, after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a package of gun-control legislation that restricted access to permit data. Maine is one of 14 states that allow access to personal information from concealed-weapon permits, according to a January USA Today article.

Pickel, the Milo chief, lamented the request in a Facebook post -- while saying he'd comply.

"Personally, I am opposed to releasing ANY information regarding concealed carry permit holders," he wrote. "I find it will create a (sic) unsafe environment not only for those who are legally permitted to have a concealed weapon, but also those who do not."

Responses to his post were visceral: Many accused the BDN of liberal bias and said they'd cancel their subscriptions. One said it thought its readers are "stupid and uninformed."

The Bangor Daily News Facebook page received many comments on the request, almost all of them negative. One asked, "Has this sick liberal rag finally gone completely Communist?" Others suggested boycotts of the paper and posted information on certain employees.

At one point in the afternoon, 17 negative comments were posted within 22 minutes on that page, and in just over three hours following its creation, a Facebook page criticizing the newspaper, "Boycott Bangor Daily News Don't Tread On Us," got more than 200 "likes."

The Journal News in New York published its map days after the December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. where gunman Adam Lanza killed 20 students and six educators. The newspaper's office is approximately 50 miles from the school.

"I think they reacted impulsively because they were so close to the Newtown shooting," said Michael Socolow, a journalism professor at the University of Maine in Orono. "I think if they had time to consider the decision, they might have made a different decision."

Still, he said, the ethical question over the request should focus on the newspaper's presentation, not the fact that the information is public.

Now, Socolow said, scrutiny is being fanned by political flames in the face of fierce divides over gun control.

"If the BDN had put in this request five years ago, it would not have catalyzed such a controversy," he said. "The toxic political environment is inflaming passion all around the media."

Under state law, a concealed-weapons permit must include the name, address, signature and physical description of the holder, along with the dates the permit was issued and will expire. Permits may also include a photograph of the holder. To obtain a permit, applicants must answer 32 questions mostly relating to any criminal background, then consent to a background check and release of psychiatric records. Permits are good for four years.

There is no central repository of permits, as some Maine communities issue their own and others rely on the Maine State Police. So the total number issued is unclear. State police have estimated the figure could be in the range of 30,000.

State House Writer Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

mshepherd@pressherald.com

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