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Judge considers novel privacy challenge brought by California gun owners

The overarching question of the privacy challenge brought by California gun owners is what personal information is needed to conduct gun violence research.

SAN DIEGO (CN) — An attorney representing millions of California gun owners said Tuesday their challenge to a California law disclosing their personal information to gun violence researchers is the first of its kind.

“We have been unable to find a single case like this one where vast amounts of information that have been collected and stored by the government is then sought to be disclosed to third parties without notice where people could not consent to disclosure,” Michael Reynolds of Snell & Wilmer told U.S. District Judge Larry Alan Burns.

At issue is a constitutional challenge by California gun owners who claim Assembly Bill 173 — a 2021 law which amended California firearms laws to authorize the state attorney general to disclose gun owners’ personal information to the California Firearm Violence Research Center at UC Davis — violates their privacy rights.

Burns was tasked Tuesday with deciding whether the case should be dismissed.

Previously, personal information collected by California gun owners during sales transactions and license applications was authorized to be used only for “legitimate law enforcement purposes.”

But AB 173 now allows the California Department of Justice to share gun owners’ personal information with researchers who study firearm-related crime, suicide and accidents.

Reynolds reiterated arguments he made during an unsuccessful temporary restraining order hearing in January seeking to block the release of gun owners’ information.

He suggested the disclosure of gun owners’ information including the addresses of their personal residence and business could make them “subject to attack” by people opposed to gun ownership or burglars looking to steal the weapons.

Burns pushed back on that argument, noting about 18 people work at the research center and not all of them had access to the personal information.

“We’re talking about information accessible to researchers who have been vetted — it’s not going to the general public,” Burns said, adding, “The concerns you’ve raised are legitimate concerns, but they are not likely to arise or come to fruition.”

The exchange between Reynolds and Burns was one of several hypothetical scenarios raised during the hourslong court hearing held in the George W. Bush appointee’s courtroom.

While gun owners are concerned their personal information could be misused, AB 173 does provide guidance on civil and criminal penalties that could be enforced in cases of negligent or intentional public disclosure.

State Deputy Attorney General Nelson Richards confirmed: “The law makes it clear the information cannot be shared publicly."

But Reynolds took his argument a step further, suggesting the state should redact most of gun owners’ personal information before sharing it with researchers.

He suggested researchers could “backtrack” or “reverse engineer” data to conduct research without receiving personal information of gun owners.

The attorney also said researchers could use “more generalized” information from the control group — age range as opposed to birth dates or ZIP codes as opposed to addresses.

Burns was less inclined to advise how the gun violence research could or should be conducted, stating: “I’m not a researcher, I don’t want to displace them.”

He offered a caveat: “I can’t imagine that information would be necessary to prevent gun violence — I’m talking about a person’s name, precise address and Social Security number.”

But Richards noted personal information was “necessary for connecting data across data sets” and connecting records across state agencies in a research practice called “linking.”

“The more data you have, the more reliable your research is,” Richards said.

Burns took the matter under submission and indicated he will issue a written order.

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