Paper receives flak for list
By Laurence Hammack
Threats of violence, litigation and legislation sprang up after a list of people allowed to carry concealed weapons was released.
The Roanoke Times will not re-post a list of gun owners on its Web site, even after being told amid continuing public furor that releasing the information does not violate state law.
First published Sunday, the database of more than 135,000 people allowed to carry concealed handguns has become the most controversial content in roanoke.com's history -- sparking threats of violence, litigation and legislation.
One day later, the list was removed from the site because of concerns that state police might have inappropriately included the names of crime victims on a list it provided to the newspaper.
Although there is a law that protects the identity of some victims in certain circumstances, state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said Tuesday the restriction does not apply to the concealed-weapons list.
"The information released to The Roanoke Times was in total compliance with the Freedom of Information Act," Geller said. "It is up to the recipient of that information to be a responsible guardian of the information."
While Geller declined to comment on whether the newspaper acted responsibly, hundreds of angry readers have said in e-mails, phone calls and even threats that it did not.
By naming everyone in Virginia who has received court permission to carry a concealed weapon, critics said, the newspaper invaded the privacy of law-abiding citizens and all but invited criminals to burglarize homes for guns. Another concern is that victims of domestic abuse, who might have armed themselves for protection, are now in danger of being tracked down by their abusers via the database.
Although the legal concerns stated by the newspaper as the reason for removing the names no longer seem to apply, Roanoke Times president and publisher Debbie Meade said Tuesday that there are no plans to put the information back online.
"The list was put up as an example of a public record," Meade said. "It was never intended for that information to be housed indefinitely on our site."
The list, which included the names and street addresses of concealed-gun owners searchable by their hometowns, ran with a column by editorial writer Christian Trejbal that was published Sunday in the Current, a section of the paper that covers the New River Valley.
Trejbal used the occasion of Sunshine Week, a national initiative to recognize open government and public records, to note that in Virginia the list of citizens "packing" is a matter of public record.
After obtaining the data from state police under the open records law, the newspaper published the list so that its readers could, in Trejbal's words, "search to find out if neighbors, carpool partners, elected officials or anyone else has permission to carry a gun."
But just because the newspaper had the information is not reason enough to publish it, said Edward Wasserman, a professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University.
"Maybe there's a point there. [The information] is instructive and I don't want to be completely dismissive of that," Wasserman said. "But it's coming at a real cost, and I don't think the invasive nature of it is sufficiently outweighed by its instructional value."
Concealed-weapon permits are on file in local courthouses for anyone who asks to see them. And a statewide list maintained by state police in Richmond is available through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Yet critics have complained that aggregating the information into a central database accessible by a few quick clicks of a mouse goes too far -- especially when there is not a compelling reason to release en masse such details as home addresses.
One possible irony is that Trejbal's stated intent to trumpet open records could result in their being slammed shut.
"The fear is that this kind of scatter-shot use of public records is going to bolster the position of those who would now want to pull that information from the public domain," Wasserman said.
In fact, Del. Dave Nutter, R-Christiansburg, said Tuesday that he is seeking an attorney general's opinion on whether state police were within their legal rights in providing the information to the newspaper.
Even if the attorney general finds that police acted correctly, requesting the opinion could be the first step in a move at next year's General Assembly to pass a law exempting concealed-weapon permit information from the Freedom of Information Act.
"It's something that we're going to have to take a look at," said Nutter, who had received more than 20 calls from constituents concerned about the newspaper's use of the information.
Meanwhile, The Roanoke Times continued to feel the wrath of readers.
By midday Tuesday, there had been more than 2,000 visits to an online discussion forum, at least 36 canceled subscriptions and countless angry calls -- some that showed up in company voice mail well before dawn.
There were also some threatening comments directed at Trejbal that led the newspaper to place a security guard, at least temporarily, outside his Christiansburg house.
Concerns were heightened early Tuesday afternoon when a mysterious package was delivered to the house.
The street was closed, a state police bomb squad was called in and at least some neighbors were evacuated after Trejbal found the package during a lunchtime trip home.
Lt. Mark Sisson of the Christiansburg Police Department said that Trejbal said he definitely didn't order the package, "so we're going to take every precaution." However, it turned out the box was full of blank postage labels and cardboard mailers.
Staff writer Paul Dellinger contributed to this report.