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Firestorm Over Tenn. Gun Permit Database

A Memphis newspaper has posted a searchable database of Tennesseans with permits to carry concealed handguns, upsetting firearms owners and igniting a debate on whether such information should be available to the public.

Gun owners say the database is an invasion of privacy and makes permit holders easy targets for burglaries. They have flooded the newspaper with complaints - some 600 e-mails daily, threatened staff and posted personal information about newspaper employees, including Google maps to some homes.

The Commercial Appeal added the database to its Web site in December, but it did not draw attention until an early February story about a parking spot argument that ended with a motorist shot dead.

Editor Chris Peck said the paper added the database because newspapers should be a thorough source for community information. He pointed to the recent shooting as a proof why the database is valuable to readers.

After the parking lot dispute, a reader posted an online comment asking whether the suspect charged with murder had a permit to carry a gun. The newspaper responded by directing readers to its database.

"When that gun comes out in public, the citizens of Tennessee have right to know," Peck said. "When and if it is used in public, the private weapon becomes part of public policy."

The database allows people to search for those who have a permit to carry a concealed weapon by name, ZIP code or city. It makes more easily accessible data already available to the public through records requests to the state Department of Safety.

Peck said it is the most viewed item on the newspaper's Web site, with more than 65,000 page views per day.

"We haven't done anything illegal or unethical," Peck said, adding the paper has no plans to remove the database. At least one woman expressed appreciation for the list, saying she was able to identify that her stalker, who also had a felony conviction, owned a gun.

Still, the database has widened the rift between First and Second Amendment proponents.

National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre calls it a "hateful, shameful form of public irresponsibility and the collapse of responsible media."

"Normal people don't get up in the morning and say 'I wonder if my doctor, lawyer or my kid's teacher has a concealed carry gun permit?"' LaPierre said. "A normal person wouldn't say my right to information is more important than someone's fear and safety."

As newspapers struggle to keep readers, posting directories of public information has become norm in efforts to become a hub for community information.

The Commercial Appeal also has posted databases of restaurant cleanliness scores and missing IRS refund checks, Peck said, and hopes to add real estate transactions and the sex offenders registry.

"It happens all the time that newspapers post databases," said Kelly McBride, ethics group leader for The Poynter Institute. "It is part of the job of newsrooms to make public information accessible and help put it into proper context with a fair amount of thought."

In 2007, The Roanoke Times posted a database for Virginia gun permit holders for Sunshine Week but hastily removed it after backlash from gun owners. The newspaper's database included the names and addresses of registered gun owners.

Tennessee is one of 19 states that allow the public to access gun permit information, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. At least 21 states keep such information confidential.

The remaining states have no laws or court decisions that address the matter. Wisconsin does not allow people to carry concealed weapons.

Texas, Florida and Ohio have passed laws in recent years to remove or restrict concealed-weapon information from the public domain.

Tennessee could be headed in that direction, with state lawmakers offering pieces of legislation to make gun permit information confidential. One bill, which would also fine news outlets like the Commercial Appeal up to $2,500 for publishing gun ownership records, advanced in the state House last week.