The professional and personal lessons I have been taught during the past few days are ones I should have learned much earlier in life, but now they are learned forever.
Below are some lessons I've learned from having posted, and since removed, the Arkansas concealed-carry list on this website. But let me say this right off the bat: I was stupid. Also naïve. And I am truly sorry because, as pure as my motive for posting the list was, it became obvious to me that my tactic was colossally wrong. As my many critics will point out, what's done can't be undone. But I wish it could.
This is an Opinion
Recently, the Arkansas General Assembly decided to snip off part of its residents’ right to know what its government is doing — specifically, to exempt all information about concealed-carry licenses (CCLs) from the state Freedom of Information Act. Gov. Mike Beebe disagreed, but he couldn't stop it. It occurred to me that I could register my futile disapproval by offering to share the last list generated by the Arkansas State Police with the public, since I thought — and still believe — that the public has a legitimate interest in being able to know who is and, of equal importance, who is not licensed to carry a concealed weapon.
I didn’t think I was repeating the mistake of the Arkansas Times, which released a similar list several years ago. Back then, individual addresses were included in the public information and in the list the Times released. And besides, there was no particular reason to release the list then: The information was still readily available from the State Police to anyone who requested it. After that episode, which caused an uproar that included death threats, a compromise was struck between news organizations and the Legislature that limited the public information on CCLs to name and ZIP code. Just name and ZIP code.
I certainly didn’t think I was doing anything like The Journal News in New York, which in December created an interactive online map showing the addresses of handgun licensees. Arkansas doesn’t license or register guns or gun owners, just those individuals who have undergone the training and background checks required to carry a concealed weapon and those commissioned as security guards. (And hunters, of course, whose hunting license information is still subject to the Freedom of Information Act.)
The distinctions were huge and clear to me: The Arkansas concealed-carry list was strictly names and ZIP codes of the people who have proven to be the best trained and most qualified to protect themselves, and it is information that had been readily available but which would in the future be a government secret.
But as I've said, I was naïve about the whole thing, and am, again, very sorry. If I had it to do again, I would not have posted the list.
I quickly realized that striking a blow for government transparency struck terror into many Arkansas CCL holders. After a few hours of availability on Monday, I removed the link that made the list available 24/7. For some hours, I continued fulfilling my offer to send the list to (many) people who requested it, but I ceased doing that on Tuesday.
By then, my name, my husband’s name, home address, phone and work phone numbers and pictures of my house — from the same Pulaski County tax records that Arkansas Business regularly mines for news — were posted all over the Internet. A Facebook page sprang up called “Gwen Moritz Breaks the Law” (although I have not) with prison bars Photoshopped over my picture. A 51-year-old wife, mother and journalist who exercised her First Amendment right in objection to government secrecy became a national threat to the Second Amendment literally overnight.
Our home phone began ringing constantly, silenced only when we unplugged it in order to go to sleep. (This may be the prompt I needed to finally get rid of that landline.) My work email address filled up with requests, complaints, insults, veiled threats and, yes, quite a few messages of thanks and appreciation.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
Lesson No. 1: Pride goeth before a fall. I recently criticized the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for reporting information that really had no business in the public record. “Just because we can do something, does that mean we should?” I wrote. How supremely arrogant of me when just a few weeks later thousands of people would ask me the very same question.
Lesson No. 2: When it comes to guns, subtle distinctions go out the window. I believe that citizens should be able to ask their government whom it has licensed to carry a concealed weapon. Also who their government has licensed to practice medicine, practice law and cut hair. But my clumsy attempt to make that point instantly turned me into an unrecognizable caricature who wants to strip Americans of the right to own guns, who hates America and the Constitution.
So for the record: I do not want to want to strip Americans of the right to own guns, I do not hate America, and I do not hate the Constitution.
Lesson No. 3: A lot of our fellow Americans are scared. I heard from several people whose names were on the Arkansas CCL list who said they were happy for the world to know that they could be packing at any time. I heard from others who were terrified that random bad guys would be reading ArkansasBusiness.com and use the list to harm them.
It was never my intention to make people who already live in fear more miserable. I’m ashamed to say that never even crossed my mind, although it certainly should have. Many of my correspondents immediately concluded that punishing CCL licensees for daring to want to protect themselves was my one and only goal. And I completely understand why they would feel that way: As I also wrote recently (in another inadvertent but poetic exercise in hypocrisy), motives don’t matter nearly as much as actions.
So again, for the record: I do not wish to punish law-abiding CCL licensees, and I am sorry if they believe I have.
Lesson No. 4: They don’t want to hurt me. As far as I know, I haven’t received any actual death threats, not even from the people who thought it was a proportional response to post directions to my house on the Internet. This remarkable fact underscores a point that gun aficionados have tried to make until they are blue in the face: They are not criminals. They posted my personal information all over the Internet in hopes that I would feel as vulnerable and exposed to criminals as they do. They seek to intimidate me as they feel they have been intimidated, to bully me in response to what they see as my bullying. They might think I deserve to become the target of crime because they feel I have made them targets. But the people who are angry with me do not seem to want to hurt me, because they truly see themselves as the good guys with guns. This, I think, may be the most valuable lesson I can share with the people who are concerned about my safety.
(Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. You may still email her at GMoritz@ABPG.com.)