Gun-rights group pressures TV station after report

Effort includes posting reporter’s personal data

ablythe@newsobserver.comJuly 25, 2012 

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Paul Valone, president of Grass Roots North Carolina.

2009 CHARLOTTE OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

— The debate over guns often sparks raw emotion and lays down a sharp dividing line, but for a Raleigh TV station, it has become personal and financial.

In response to a WRAL report on concealed-weapons permits that included a searchable database, a North Carolina gun-rights organization has launched a campaign against the reporter and his supervisors and applied pressure to the station’s advertisers.

The incident demonstrates the prickliness of examining gun-related issues even before the shooting in Colorado stirred fresh debate. It also exposes tensions that can arise between advocates of the First Amendment and its protections of free speech and supporters of the Second Amendment with its right to bear arms.

Grass Roots North Carolina, described on its website as “North Carolina’s only ‘no compromise’ gun rights organization,” has not quieted its campaign against WRAL in the wake of the killings at the Aurora, Colo., movie theater.

Paul Valone, the organization’s president, said the group has a long-standing policy that it will take economic action against any media outlet that divulges information about gun owners that group members think should remain private.

Valone first urged WRAL to take down the database that allows users to find out if people who live nearby have gun permits. A searcher looking at a particular town or city will see the streets where gun-permit holders live but won’t see the name or specific address of the permit holder.

When their effort to have the site taken down failed, Valone turned to his organization’s email alert network, urging more than 50,000 people on the list to deliver a message to Mark Binker, the multimedia investigative reporter who posted the information, his bosses and the station’s advertisers.

“In an apparent attempt to shame gun owners, some media outlets have a history of publishing the names of gun purchasers.” Valone said in one alert. “But that was many years ago, before the advent of the Internet. Things are now far more reciprocal. So let’s talk a bit about reporter Mark Binker, the apparent engineer of the piece to reveal concealed handgun permit-holders.”

Valone posted lots of information about Binker culled from websites and social media sites, including photos of the reporter’s wife and children.

Valone cautioned people not to harass Binker. “BE POLITE, DO NOT THREATEN, and CALL OR EMAIL ONLY ONCE!” the alert states with capital letters for emphasis.

Public information

Binker said he was taken aback by the mentions of his wife and children, even though the links were to things he had posted himself.

As a journalist, Binker said he is used to being the subject of scrutiny and had grown to expect it.

“We as journalists always say the remedy to speech you don’t like is more speech,” Binker said. “You don’t like to cut people off.”

Valone said, “GRNC has uniformly instructed respondents to be civil and nonthreatening to all WRAL representatives. With respect to reporter Mark Binker, however, I would note that if you shake the hornets’ nest, you should expect to get stung.”

Steve Hammel, WRAL-TV vice president and general manager, said his news outlet published no information that was not already available to the public when it posted its July 12 report on concealed-weapons permit holders.

“We’ve released public records that anyone out there can easily obtain,” Hammel said.

Hammel used the incident as an opportunity to opine on the First Amendment and Second Amendment, saying they carried equal weight.

“Both are vital,” Hammel said in a July 20 post. “Both make this a great country.”

Hammel batted back accusations that the news organization was trying to take away guns, change gun laws, attack the Second Amendment or render judgment on the lawfulness of those who carry concealed guns.

The targeted complaints, Hammel said, were unlikely to make the organization back away from an issue.

“As far as we’re concerned, it creates the opposite effect,” Hammel said. “We have the resolve to report news.”

Debate over Aurora shooting

As the debate over the concealed-weapon permit database plays out across the state, gun-rights advocates and gun-control supporters have had heated exchanges in the aftermath of the movie theater killings in Colorado that left 12 dead and 58 injured.

Gun-rights advocates, in anticipation of the polarizing debate to come, initially called for focus on the victims, not reports about the suspect’s acquiring of two pistols, a shotgun, an AR-15 rifle and thousands of bullets.

Gun-control advocates called for new restrictions that would make it more difficult to amass a collection of weapons and ammunition so quickly without drawing notice.

Gun-rights advocates argue that fewer restrictions on where weapons could be carried in public might have made it possible for a gun owner to stop the shooter sooner.

Gun-control advocates contend such statements are ludicrous; not only was the suspect wearing body armor and a gas mask, the theater was dark and full with movie-goers rushing to get away from the madness.

Ladd Everitt, communications director at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said gun-rights advocates and gun-lobby organizations such as the National Rifle Association had been louder and more successful at politics in recent years.

“I think the NRA has been really great at creating this myth that if you cross them it’s political suicide,” Everitt said.

In North Carolina, the 2011 legislature amended gun laws, giving gun-rights advocates some of the looser restrictions they have long sought. Authority was expanded for concealed-weapons permit holders to carry concealed firearms in state parks.

Everitt said gun-control advocates need to speak out more often, that politicians “always will listen to what way the wind is blowing.”

Although he was unfamiliar with the details of the campaign against WRAL, he said it fits a pattern of bullying by national gun lobby groups.

“People of conscience are sick to death of this last shooting,” Everitt said. “We have to admit that we’ve been outworked.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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