2013-01-03 / Front Page

County to Gannett: You Can't Have Gun Records

Leaders vow a fight to the end to protect Putnam citizens
Douglas Cunningham
& Eric Gross

Clerk Dennis Sant, County Executive MaryEllen Odell, State Sen. Greg Ball and Assemblyman Steve Katz at a news conference Thursday about denying access to pistol permit records in Putnam County. Photo/Doug CunninghamClerk Dennis Sant, County Executive MaryEllen Odell, State Sen. Greg Ball and Assemblyman Steve Katz at a news conference Thursday about denying access to pistol permit records in Putnam County. Photo/Doug Cunningham

Couching the fight as one of right vs. wrong and public safety vs. the publish-at-all-costs desire of an out-of-county newspaper, Putnam County officials on Thursday said they will not release the names and addresses of pistol permit holders.

The officials – County Executive MaryEllen Odell, County Clerk Dennis J. Sant, State Sen. Greg Ball and Assemblyman Steve Katz – said that releasing the names would endanger thousands of law-abiding permit holders and needlessly put at risk domestic violence victims, current and retired police officers and other citizens.

The four officials vowed a unified, “shoulder-to-shoulder” defense of the county against the request by the Journal News, a White Plains newspaper owned by Gannett. It has limited circulation in Putnam County and has already published the names and addresses on an interactive map of permit holders in Westchester and Rockland counties.

“We intend to take this process to the very end,” said Odell. “Wherever that process leads us.” She said to Putnam residents: “I will not retreat from protecting you, nor will I surrender.”

“I’m a man who follows the rule of law,” said Sant. “We’re not talking about the rule of law any more – we’re talking about the safety of our citizens.”

He said the world has changed in huge ways since the adoption of the state’s open meetings and records law three decades ago: the spread of electronic, online information, social networks like Facebook, the use of Google maps and other programs to pinpoint someone’s address, even their driveway. All of those changes mean that while releasing the records would be legally right, it would be morally wrong  because it would endanger so many, he said.

Sant recounted one phone call he received from a woman who had been stalked for years, had finally found a safe location, and now, two days after the newspaper’s publication of the other names, is receiving hangup phone calls believed to be from the stalker. Said Sant: “She lives in fear for herself and her three daughters.”

Putnam’s refusal to simply go along has drawn nationwide attention, including at least 10 broadcast outlets from New York City and the region who were at Thursday’s noon-time news conference in the historic Putnam Courthouse. It may have been the first Putnam news conference ever in which bystanders and media had to pass through a metal detector. A number of ordinary Putnam residents also attended, including one with a pro-Second Amendment sign she held up. Several who attended also were active members of area fish and game clubs. The bystanders gave the officials several standing ovations during the news conference.

Politically, Putnam’s stand is virtually a guaranteed winner for the officials. Putnam is conservative and the NRA backing is generally important at election time. Ball, in particular, has made much of the gun issue. In his 2010 race, his slogan was usually translated as “God, guns and family.”

“This was a great slap in the face to law-abiding citizens,” Ball said Thursday. “These are tens of thousands of people who did nothing wrong… I stand proudly today as a resident of Putnam County. I will fight with you until hell freezes over, and then we’re going to fight on the ice.”

Ball and Katz both said they will push legislation in Albany to prohibit such disclosures.

“We are now at the intersection of where the law meets morality, what’s right and wrong,” Katz said.  

Earlier story, from Thursday's Courier:

Putnam County Clerk Dennis Sant, seated, receives an ovation for refusing to provide a Westchester based newspaper with a list of licensed gun owners in Putnam County. 
Eric Gross Putnam County Clerk Dennis Sant, seated, receives an ovation for refusing to provide a Westchester based newspaper with a list of licensed gun owners in Putnam County. Eric Gross Putnam County will defy a request for the names and addresses of all holders of pistol permits by the Westchester-based Journal News.

The newspaper asked for that information and received it from Westchester and Rockland counties. Putnam, which initially said it was gathering the data, has now refused to turn it over at all. The move by County Clerk Dennis J. Sant has drawn enthusiastic, widespread support from other local officials, who said it was stupid and dangerous of the newspaper to publish such detailed information of those who hold pistol permits, which are issued at the county level.

Sant drew a standing ovation New Year’s Eve, during swearing-in ceremonies for new officials, when Assemblyman Steve Katz hailed the clerk’s move.

Katz criticized the Journal News, a Gannett-owned daily with limited circulation in Putnam, for publishing the list of residents licensed to carry handguns: “Law-biding citizens have the right to carry a gun after having gone through the legal process as required by New York State. These men and women were singled out as if they had committed a crime. By recklessly publishing their names in the newspaper, these innocent people have been placed in jeopardy. Prosecutors, judges, police officers have all been singled out and the bad guys now know where the guns are,” Katz said.

Katz praised Sant, whom he described as a “very special civil servant having the integrity and guts to say ‘no’ to the newspaper giant, telling their editors: ‘I am not going to give you that list!’”

Sant received a standing ovation.

“I will not place the lives of law-abiding residents of our county into jeopardy just because they have been properly permitted and licensed to own or carry a firearm,” Sant said later. “Why should we give the unscrupulous individual the upper hand?”

The publication of the permit holders Dec. 23 has drawn nationwide ire from gun owners and others, who believe it’s an invasion of privacy and poses a number of problematic questions. They include that many gun permit holders are victims of domestic violence, and acquired a weapon for personal protection. It’s unclear what, if any, precautions the newspaper took to prevent “outing” the detailed address of those victims.

In addition, many gun permit holders are current or former police officers, who almost universally seek to keep their family information confidential from those they incarcerated.

In a notable irony, there are reports that the newspaper has itself hired armed security to protect its satellite office in Rockland County. Additional comment on that or the Journal News’s reaction to Putnam’s decision was not forthcoming from Janet Hasson, president and publisher.

Further, it likewise was not known whether the paper took any steps to protect domestic violence victims and law enforcement officers.

Two other striking issues have also come to the fore since the newspaper’s controversial move. First, some gun permit holders who have been identified fear they will be targeted for burglaries or thefts by criminals seeking to obtain a weapon. Secondly, it’s also conceivable that those who don’t have a gun permit may become known as an easier target. Neither prospect is a positive development.

Local officials are lining up behind Sant. State Sen. Greg Ball—a staunch backer of the Second Amendment—will join Sant and County Executive Mary- Ellen Odell in a news conference today (Thursday) to pledge a unified front.

“The Journal News has continuously and grotesquely targeted law-abiding citizens; my phone is ringing off the hook,” Ball told the Courier Wednesday afternoon. “Among those private citizens who’ve now been exposed are victims of domestic violence, who got a permit to protect themselves and their families.”

Ball also said he’s heard from retired police officers who’ve “put away hundreds of rapists and murderers.” He continued: “Now, because of the Journal News, those crooks, thugs and whack jobs have access in seconds to their address. It is criminally insane the Journal News would do this. It’s morally reprehensible, and it’s personally irresponsible on every single level.”

Ball, who introduced legislation as an Assemblyman to prevent such disclosure, said he will now press the case in the Senate. He said his Assembly effort received bipartisan support.

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