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Sunday, March 3, 2024 | Back issues
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Judge refuses to block California from sharing gun owner data with researchers

Gun owners claimed a new law allowing the state to share their personal information with gun violence researchers made them afraid to exercise their Second Amendment right.

SAN DIEGO (CN) — A federal judge has declined a request to temporarily block a California law that allows the state to share personal information about gun owners with gun violence researchers.

Assembly Bill 173 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, Stanford University, and any other “bona fide research institution” meeting certain requirements who study firearm-related crime, suicide and accidents. Five California registered gun owners sued the state, claiming the law irreparably harmed gun owners' First Amendment rights. 

U.S. District Judge Larry Burns rejected the argument, finding the gun owners failed to state a claim. He granted state Attorney General Rob Bonta's request to dismiss the lawsuit. 

Signed by Governor Gavin Newsom in 2021, AB 173 allows the state to share gun owners’ personal information with research institutions in the state — including gun owners' names, address’ and ages — which is collected with every firearms sale in California. The information goes into the “Automated Firearms System” database for the purpose of studying and preventing gun violence, shooting accidents, and suicide.

Additional personal information is collected from applicants who apply for a permit to carry a concealed firearm, including their Social Security number, California driver’s license or ID number, occupation, address, weight, height and reason for applying to carry the weapon.

Ammunition purchaser information is kept in the “Ammunition Purchase Records File” database.

As of Sept. 23, 2021, that information also gets shared with researchers. 

The gun owners had argued the disclosure of their information, including the addresses of their personal residence and business, could make them “subject to attack” burglars or people opposed to gun ownership.

Burns rejected the argument, noting about 18 people work at the research center and not all of them have access to the personal information.

Three of the five plaintiffs also submitted declarations saying the sharing of their personal information with third-party researchers has dissuaded them from exercising their Second Amendment rights." Burns rejected that argument as well.

"Considering the categorical prohibition on publicly disseminating any personal identifying information that the DOJ has imposed on the research organizations, the enhanced risks plaintiffs fear are no more likely than the risks posed by many other California laws that compel citizens to furnish publicly available personal information," Burns wrote. "These include property title and land ownership registries, electoral rolls, and court documents." 

AB 173 does provide guidance on civil and criminal penalties that could be enforced in cases of negligent or intentional public disclosure of gun owners’ personal information. 

Dr. Tent Simmons, a research data supervisor for the California Department of Justice whose responsibilities include the implementation of AB 173 and reviewing requests for information relating to gun and ammunition purchases collected by the department, said in a declaration that researchers who apply for access to data that include personal identifying information of gun owners have to explain how the information will be used for a research project. The project also has to comply with strict data security measures set by the FBI.  

Each researcher handling the information also undergoes a fingerprint background check.

Currently only two research institutions are authorized to view gun owner and purchaser information — UC Davis and Stanford University.

Before publishing anything that uses the gun owners' information, researchers must give a pre-publication manuscript to the California Department of Justice at least 10 days before publication to make sure no personal information is published directly or in a way that the identities of the people whose information was used could be identified.

No researcher has ever disclosed personal information from the database to someone not authorized to view the information, or the public, Simmons said. 

In emailed statement, Bonta's office applauded the ruling.

"We are pleased with the court’s decision," Bonta's office said. "As the court recognizes, AB 173 safeguards Californians' privacy and personal information, while lawfully allowing research institutions to collect data to help protect our communities from gun violence and save lives."

The gun owners have until Feb. 10 to file an amended complaint. They are represented by Michael Reynolds of Snell & Wilmer, who did not return a request for comment by press time.

Categories / Courts, Government, Regional

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