Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Gun Owner Next Door

A couple of observations about the Journal News publishing online a map of gun ownership, and all the high drama that has followed (now the newspaper is hiring armed guards).

First, if there is a problem, isn't the problem with the law that makes the names and addresses of licensed gun owners public information, not with the newspaper that decides to publish public information?

Now it is a favorite theme of mine that what used to be "public," in the sense that you could go to town hall and make an individual query about it, is very much more "public" today when someone can sit in Islamabad and look at the information on a Google map. But still -- there was a reason for the provision that this information be public. What were those reasons? Do they still hold? Does the difference in scale really matter? Why not fix the law if that is the problem?

And second, even the gun owner map is a replay of an old story. In 2008 a Memphis, TN newspaper published exactly the same map for its neighborhoods. All the same arguments were put forward: Gun owners would be endangered. No, they wouldn't; if you are going to commit a burglary the last place you want to break into is a house with a gun in it. Well then the house next door will be endangered (I am not sure the gun owners who advanced this argument ever got the support of their next door neighbors in their claim). And so on.

Two CMU computer scientists noted that if they waited a few months they could study the crime data and maybe draw some conclusions on the basis of actual numbers rather than speculations. 

“… despite activism on the part of gun owners against the publication of such databases, we found no evidence that publishing the identities of gun permit holders led to an increase in crimes aimed at stealing their weapons, relative to other forms of theft or burglaries. If anything, the loss of privacy seemed to carry a positive, but short-lived, externality for both those whose identities were published on the database, and for some of those living near them.”
Guns, Privacy, and Crime, by Aquisti and Tucker.

In other words, the attendant publicity made burglars with wits tend to stay away from neighborhoods with a lot of guns. The effect wasn't that strong and it faded fairly quickly with the passage of time, but if anything, experience would support the hypothesis that when there is publicity about a neighborhood having a lot of guns, and even exactly where they are, burglars tend to burgle elsewhere. Until they forget or a new crop of burglars arrive. And of course a lot of burglars don't read the newspapers and their behavior wouldn't be affected at all. 

Am I the only guy who remembers this study? Have the authors or anyone else done more?

More importantly, does the gun lobby know this study? Probably. They keep good track of what is being said about them.

But after weeks of mourning over the six-year-old victims in Sandy Hook, they feel a desperate need to be victims again, to recapture their status as the freedom loving folks the government hates. For the gun lobby to act victimized by the publication of these maps, in spite of the fact that the science points in the opposite direction, is contemptible.


  1. I'd agree that the first problem is the law that makes the information public information. But why can't you fault the publisher that goes ahead and publishes it?

    I think many people would be up in arms if some group started using public information to publish, say, the addresses of persons who have the AIDS virus. If I learned nothing else from your Bits class, it is that scale of available information outpaces both critical thinking about its collection and responsible use of that information.

    Scale of availability has been abused before to intimidate conservative petition signers.

    1. But I am not sure any part of this is wrong, either the law or the publication of the data en masse. Maybe it is just different and the difference is part of the price we pay for living in a free society. But I would be curious to know the rationale behind the original decision to make public the identities of license holders.