Judge Blocks California Law Allowing Gun Owners’ Personal Information to Be Shared with Researchers

A state law providing the names and other identifying information of California gun owners to researchers studying the effectiveness of gun violence prohibition orders has been blocked by a judge, who said that ‘it could violate the owners’ right to privacy.

The information, which also includes the addresses, phone numbers, fingerprints and criminal records of more than 4 million Californians who own firearms, is collected by the state attorney general’s office, which used to verify purchase histories and for studies of the relationship between gun ownership, homicides and suicides.

After questions arose about the bureau’s authority to share the information with others, lawmakers approved AB173, signed last year by Gov. Gavin Newsom, allowing the new California Firearm Violence Research Center at UC Davis to receive the data and provide it to other researchers. Their primary focus is to determine whether state laws allowing family members or police to obtain court orders prohibiting someone from owning a firearm have reduced violence.

The new law allows researchers to make their findings public but prohibits the publication of any identifying information about gun owners. But the gun organizations immediately sued the state, saying the disclosure of owners’ personal information to researchers was a “serious invasion of privacy” that violates the right to privacy endorsed by California voters in 1972. On Friday, San Diego County Superior Court Judge Katherine Bacal issued an injunction halting all further disclosure of gun owners’ names to investigators while the case continues.

Although many gun owners shop in public and can be seen at shooting ranges, that does not mean “there is no reasonable expectation of privacy for the private identifying information of all owners,” Bacal wrote. And while the state shared identifying information with researchers as recently as last November, she said, “this does not take into account the potential current and future harm that could occur due to the ‘continued use of information’. She also cited reports of a “massive data breach” in June that revealed identifying information about applicants for concealed-carry permits.

Bacal said she would not require the state to withdraw information he has already provided to researchers, but she prohibited further disclosure pending a final decision on whether the alleged intrusion of the California privacy law trumps California’s interest in allowing researchers to review the data.

The law is one of a series of California gun measures that are being challenged by gun groups as the U.S. Supreme Court curtails states’ power to restrict gun ownership to fire. After a ruling in June striking down state laws, including California, that require residents to demonstrate a need for self-defense to carry concealed firearms in public, judges ordered lower courts in California to reconsider the legality of a voter-approved ban. on gun magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds.

In response to the gun research decision, the Firearms Policy Coalition, one of six gun advocacy groups that challenged the state law, said Bacal’s decision was a victory for individual rights.

“The California government has proven time and time again that it cannot be trusted with the private personal information of its residents,” Bill Sack, the organization’s chief legal officer, said in a statement. He said the decision “reinforces what the FPC has stood for from the start; that you do not need to be forced to open your front door to immoral government intrusion in order to exercise your basic rights.

Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the decision, which Bonta may appeal. There was also no immediate comment from the UC Davis research center.

Bob Egelko is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: begelko@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @BobEgelko