Updated Thursday, December 27, 2012 at 11:01 AM
On Dec. 19, days after the horrific shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school, President Obama said he found it encouraging that a discussion had re-emerged about how to deter future mass shootings. "That conversation has to continue," he said.
This is probably not the sort of conversation he had in mind.
The Journal News of White Plains, N.Y., on Saturday posted an interactive map with the names and addresses of handgun-permit owners in New York's Westchester and Rockland counties. The newspaper said that informing people about legal weapons in their neighborhoods was a public service.
However, gun owners considered the map and accompanying story a provocation and the liberal declaration of war they widely feared. The interactive map, compiled from publicly available records, has already been shared tens of thousands of times on social media.
All of which led the conversation to take a markedly nasty turn.
"Now everyone knows where the LEGAL GUNS are kept, a valuable piece of information for criminals," wrote a Facebook user who gave his name as Mike Pandolfo. "Why don't you do something helpful, like trying to find out where the ILLEGAL GUNS are kept?"
The map on its website is made up of thousands of dots, each representing a handgun permit holder in Westchester and Rockland counties. By clicking a dot, users can view the name and address of the permit holder.
Among those whose names appeared were police officers, judges, battered women and "guys that did some undercover drug work," said Scott Sommavilla, the president of the Westchester County Firearm Owners Association.
The map includes information about more than 100 permit holders outside the two counties, including dozens with home addresses in New York City, Connecticut and New Jersey. Many of those apparently obtained permits because they work in the counties.
In response, some conservative blogs published the names and home addresses of the paper's publisher, Janet Hasson, and its reporters and editors, including the man responsible for "Comics, crosswords, Jumble, Sudoku, movie clock."
"Merry Christmas, Eva Braun/Janet Hasson!" read one blogger's headline. "So. You want to use your liberal rag to publish the names and addresses of legal conceal carry gun owners in your area? Okay. But don't whine squeal like a little stuck Gestapo agent when the tables are turned, Ms Hasson." Jeffersonian, a commenter at Sauce for the Goose, wrote "Nice house. Wooded lot, too. Lots of places to hide." Syuck in NY. ... For Now added "Lol. That was the 1st thing I thought of when viewing those pics of her palace!"
Angry Web reaction to even the most mild political stories is now par for the course in journalism, where every reporter potentially has a national audience and every reader has a direct line into the reporter's inbox and the capacity to share phone numbers and addresses on Facebook, Twitter or blogs.
The listings of the journalists also went viral, generating hundreds of angry responses from gun owners already feeling under assault by talk of resurrecting the assault-weapons ban. The target expanded to include the home phone number and address of Gracia Martore, chief executive of the paper's parent group, Gannett.
In a statement, Hasson wrote "Frequently, the work of journalists is not popular. One of our roles is to report publicly available information on timely issues, even when unpopular. We knew publication of the database (as well as the accompanying article providing context) would be controversial, but we felt sharing information about gun permits in our area was important in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings." She declined a request to elaborate.
Hasson declined to say how much traffic the gun permit story drove to the site. But her paper followed up with a reaction piece, noting how "Social media played a big part in the exponential spread of the story" and suggesting that the reporters had been inundated with phone calls.
The piece quoted one caller, Scott Williams, a former Marine of New Jersey, as saying "It gets us all talking about gun control. That people are at a heightened concern makes sense to me." He added that the newspaper's decision to link to the database was "highly Orwellian. The implications are mind-boggling," he said. "It's as if gun owners are sex offenders."
A North Carolina television station faced the same sorts of personalized attacks when it published an online database of gun-permit holders in July. Howard Good, a professor of media ethics at the State University of New York at New Paltz, said that given the fierce debate over guns, such databases were a worthy endeavor for news organizations. But Good said the coverage must also address public policy.
"It's not enough to put images out there that provoke a visceral reaction," he said.