Late last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill that would give "gun violence researchers" access to the name and address of just about every gun owner in the state, along with a complete list of firearms they own along with their ammunition and, when the underlying provision becomes law, gun parts purchases.
The bill, AB 173, was originally part of AB 1237, written by Assemblyman Phil Ting, which had died in committee earlier in the session. While the original legislation was unable to get out of the original Assembly committee of jurisdiction, the same text was amended to a "budget bill" passed in the final week of the legislative session—almost the textbook case of "under the cover of darkness."
Gun Owner opposition to law
Before the legislation was signed into law, the California Rifle & Pistol Association sent a letter to Newsom imploring him to veto the law based, in part, on the California constitution's recognition of a right to privacy. CRPA Legislative Director Roy M. Griffith Jr. wrote:
Most importantly AB 173 is in direct violation of the California Constitution which states in Article 1, Section 1, “All people are by nature free and independent and have inalienable rights. Among these are enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining safety, happiness, and privacy.” In all, the California Constitution names "privacy" as a fundamental right of all Californians five times!
A Bearing Arms' Cam & Company interview with Armed American Radio's Mark Walters pointed out that if you're doing gun violence research, and all you're using is the California Department of Justice's database of legal gun owners who have gone through all the mandatory background checks for both commercial and private sales, "dare I say they find no gun violence in California because it's not those people that are committing crimes in California with their firearms."
The Second Amendment Foundation noted that legal challenges to the law may be difficult to mount. According to Executive Vice President Alan Gottleib:
“Our legal team is looking at this as a possible lawsuit,” he said. “To have standing, we need to find plaintiffs who can show that their personal information has been misused, and they can prove damages. They should contact us if they want to be part of this lawsuit.”
Until, someone's information is actually leaked, then it's unlikely that a successful challenge could be mounted against the law.
California's poor track record on privacy
The law divulging California gun owner information comes just months after a state requirement that non-profit groups divulge their large donor lists to the state Department of Justice was struck down by the Supreme Court.
In the 6-3 ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts noted an inconvenient fact found during the district court case on the law.
The judge also found that California had promised to keep the forms secret but had not always done so. According to court papers, the challengers discovered in 2015 that the state had displayed about 1,800 forms on its website. State officials said that the disclosures were inadvertent and promptly corrected and that the state had imposed new security measures.
Leaking the database
It seems like the state's goal in passing the law is for the information to leak out to anti-gun activists and media. As an article at Reason.com noted:
The law says that an assortment of government info about gun possessors "shall be available to researchers affiliated with the California Firearm Violence Research Center at UC Davis for academic and policy research purposes." Furthermore, "At the department's discretion…information collected pursuant to this section may be provided to any other nonprofit bona fide research institution accredited by the United States Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation for the study of the prevention of violence."
Yes, the law also insists that "Material identifying individuals shall only be provided for research or statistical activities and shall not be transferred, revealed, or used for purposes other than research or statistical activities, and reports or publications derived therefrom shall not identify specific individuals."
Still, whether or not the resultant research as published names a specific person, a gun owner might understandably not be thrilled that people in the business of coming up with reasons why no one should be allowed to own guns (largely true of people in the "gun violence research" field) can easily know their name, address, and all the weapons, parts, and ammo they bought legally. What's more, nothing in the law as written applies any stern level of oversight or punishment over misuse of the information.
With no potential punishment for failing to secure personal data given to researchers, or even to bar researchers who fail to secure the information from further access to the database, it's hard to see why especially anti-gun academics wouldn't leak the database to the zealots at Moms Demand Action, Brady, or the Giffords Law Center.
What would they do with a leaked database?
If you're wondering what gun control activists could do with the leaked database, look no further than what happened nine years ago after The Journal News used a public records request to get a list of New York pistol permit holders and used that data to create a map showing where all of them lived.
Addressing the controversy, the paper's publisher, Janet Hasson was quoted as saying they hadn't gone far enough.
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 said.
The newspaper also said it had wanted to publish even more information.
“We were surprised when we weren’t able to obtain information on what kinds and how many weapons people in our market own,” the newspaper said in a statement.
After public pushback that included creating a similar map of the newspaper's employees, the paper pulled the interactive map.
What the episode demonstrated was that there is a substantial portion of the population, especially the so-called "elites" and those in predominantly blue states that view lawful gun ownership as something more akin to sex offenders.
Why do they need names and address?
Restricted Arms contacted both Assemblyman Ting's office and the Gun Violence Research Center at UC Davis two weeks ago.
Assemblyman Ting's online contact form, like that of most legislators, refuses to take comments or inquiries from residents not in his district. Upon calling his Sacramento office, Restricted Arms was hung up on after inquiring about who dealt with the press and could address AB 173. Calling back, Restricted Arms was given the name and email address of Ting's press liaison, but emails were never answered.
Similarly, Restricted Arms' inquiries to UC Davis and Dr. Garen Wintemute were also unanswered.
What we hoped to learn was what benefit researchers would gain from specific names and addresses that could not be realized with anonymized data sorted by ZIP code, assessor parcel maps or voting precincts.
We have no idea what benefit the kind of macro-level statistical analysis that public policy researchers typically do would use individual names and addresses for.
If you have any ideas, let us know.
The leak is the goal
Restricted Arms is of the opinion that the eventual leak of the database is the goal. Newspapers or activist groups would use the database to create the sort of maps or searchable online forms so people could find out exactly what types of firearms their neighbors might own. Expect those who registered so-called assault weapons with the state to be targeted for ostracism, cancelling or other public shaming.