Big things don't typically happen in Mohegan Lake, NY.
The small town an hour north of New York City that I've called home for the past 13 years has never been the focus of much attention. Outside the occasional drug bust and teacher-student sex scandal, the biggest thing to happen to my hometown in recent memory was when we got a combination Pizza Hut/IHOP/TCBY a few blocks away from the pizzeria that sells cigarettes to minors.
But when The Journal News, my hometown paper that serves my county, Westchester, and the two that border it, recently released an interactive map showing where people with gun permits in Westchester and Rockland Counties lived, a small-town paper made a big-time splash.
Soon enough, networks and news websites from CNN to Politico were covering the reaction to the map. My state senator, Greg Ball, began a circuit of television appearances talking about the dangers and "idiocy" of the map. Residents of the counties shown spoke out in rage against the map and claimed that The Journal News violated their privacy, jeopardized their safety and treated them like sex offenders or terrorists.
The map has since been taken down, but its impact has irreparably stained The Journal News' integrity as a newspaper and brought out the very worst in the people I've long considered friends and neighbors. The Journal News meant only to show just how many guns and gun owners resided in their coverage area and those who spoke out against the map presumably only wanted to protect their Second Amendment rights and their safety. However, as noble as those two causes may be, the actions they lead to failed those causes miserably.
There was nothing illegal about what The Journal News did, as all of the information they used to construct the map was retrieved through New York Freedom of Information Law requests. Since gun permits are public record in New York State, anyone could have retrieved the names and addresses of these gun owners and in theory made the same map as The Journal News.
The New York state legislature has since limited public access to some information about some permit holders, but the most pressing concern regarding the map was about morality, not legality. This is where The Journal News failed.
"In the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, The Journal News thought the community should know where gun permit holders in their community were," wrote publisher Janet Hasson in a Jan. 18 letter regarding the removal of the map from the paper's website, "in part to give parents an opportunity to make careful decisions about their children’s safety." The ethical guidelines of journalism are somewhat enigmatic with few concrete rules to guide reporters, but the overarching moral question is relatively simple: "Will doing x, y or z harm anybody in anyway?"
Unfortunately, the map failed that basic test. Two homes shown on the map were burglarized with one home being stripped of two guns and two permits.
These two incidents only fueled the firestorm of controversy and protest unleashed by the residents listed on the map and those sympathetic to their cause, even after The Journal News received enough threatening letters and calls to hire armed security for their offices.
Those who appeared on the map had every right to feel violated and victimized by an exploitative piece of journalism. However, every logical and decent objection they could have made to the map was undermined in the vitriolic response and protest.
Hundreds of residents took to social media to defame the newspaper, but the extreme and baffling steps taken by some opposed to the map undermined the core of their concerns.
On Jan. 11, Ball and New York state assemblyman Steven Katz (also from Mohegan Lake), along with 21 people listed on the map, appeared on Fox News' Hannity to speak out against how their safety and privacy were violated by the map and how they now felt threatened because of The Journal News.
You didn't misread that. These people appeared on national TV because they were concerned about their privacy and safety.
With that absurdly illogical publicity stunt, Ball, Katz and their concerned constituents turned what could have been a meaningful reaction to a newspaper overstepping its bounds into a political campaign defending a gun regulation system that is woefully flawed and a gun culture that is woefully harmful.
The tragedy at Newtown will forever stand as a monumental, if horrific, step toward stricter gun regulation and a reassessment of America's mentality on gun violence, for better or for worse. Indeed, the miserable events of Sandy Hook Elementary School could have led to a meaningful conversation about guns in America for Mohegan Lake and the surrounding towns and cities.
So what could each party have done differently?
Instead of focusing on where guns were in Westchester and Rockland Counties, The Journal News could have focused on how many guns and gun permits there were in these counties. This would give readers and residents a powerful idea of just how deeply ingrained gun ownership is in their neighborhoods without victimizing or exploiting anybody.
And instead of using fear and victimization as an excuse to adding vitriol to an already contentious and historically fruitless debate, those who opposed the map for whatever reason could have used this as a way to show how many people can own and maintain fire arms in a legal and safe manner while quashing unfair stereotypes that have stigmatized gun owners for decades.
The map has been taken down, but an image of it remains on The Journal News' website as a means of keeping the purpose and impact of it alive. And just like the map, the controversy will soon dissipate in Westchester, Rockland and little old Mohegan Lake, but its impact on the gun rights debate and even The Journal News' credibility will remain alive in the area.
Both parties had an opportunity to make a name for an area constantly vying to escape the shadow of New York City with a meaningful discussion on gun rights. Instead, the area that I'm still proud to call home will be connected to one of the most contentious exchanges surrounding gun rights in recent history.
To be honest, it was interesting to see my hometown and paper featured so prominently in the national landscape, but if this is how they had to do it, I prefer that my hometown's claim to fame stay our combination Pizza Hut/IHOP/TCBY.