Controversial Database Intended to Benefit Public Safety

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In December, a Memphis-based newspaper posted a searchable database of citizens with permits to carry concealed handguns.

The post went relatively unnoticed until early February, when the paper — the Commercial Appeal — referred to its database while covering a story. This set off a firestorm of debate over the legality and relative merits of the database, with the First and Second Amendments hanging in the balance.

Nevertheless, Chris Peck, editor of the Commercial Appeal, said readers have come to use the database, which is searchable by inputting last name, first name, city and zip code.

“The first reader we are aware of who inquired about whether a particular person had a permit to carry did so after a shooting in Memphis, where two drivers got into an argument of whose SUV was parked too close to the other,” Peck said. “The man who did the shooting did, in fact, have a permit to carry. Another reader told us she used the list to find out whether a man who was stalking her had a gun.”

The newspaper acquired this information from the Tennessee Department of Safety, paying $200 for the list, which is updated twice a year. According to Peck, the information was delivered via CD or DVD, which the Commercial Appeal then simply uploaded to its site.

It takes the paper just a few hours a week to maintain the database.

“We do periodically check it to make sure it is running,” Peck said. “And we edited the state list and deleted the home addresses and dates of birth of those on the list to give those on the list a somewhat greater sense of security and privacy.”

Despite — or perhaps because of — its controversial nature, the database has proven to be a real draw, seeing more than 700,000 page views last month. And some might say it has played a proactive role in furthering public safety.

“We have found more than 70 people on the list who clearly shouldn’t have had a permit due to violent past behavior,” said Peck, who added that media searches of the list have revealed state legislators who possess firearms. “The public wouldn’t have known that if the database was closed to scrutiny.”

However, Peck said he believes special interest groups will be successful in having the database shut down.

“The database has activated the NRA (National Rifle Association) and other gun-rights groups,” Peck said. “I think it is likely that these groups will convince the Tennessee state Legislature to close the list to the public.”

In fact, the NRA and other gun groups have gone to extreme measures to make their views known.

“These groups have now posted the names, addresses [and] maps to private homes of all Commercial Appeal executives,” Peck said. “More than 1,000 angry, sometimes threatening e-mails have been sent. Hundreds of people have canceled [their subscriptions to] the newspaper.”

Daniel Margolis is a freelance writer living in Chicago. His work has been published in magazines, trade publications and Web sites nationwide, including XXL, Wax Poetics and AOL Digital City Chicago. He can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

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