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California Judge Blocks Sharing of Gun Owner Data

San Diego County Superior Court Judge Katherine Bacal last week issued an injunction halting any further release of gun owners' names to researchers studying of the relationships between gun ownership, homicides and suicides.

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(TNS) — A state law providing the names and other identifying information of gun owners in California to researchers studying the effectiveness of gun-violence restraining orders has been blocked by a judge, who says it may violate the owners' privacy rights.

The information, which also includes the addresses, phone numbers, fingerprints and any criminal records of the more than 4 million Californians who own firearms, is collected by the state attorney general's office, which uses it for background checks on purchases and for studies of the relationships between gun ownership, homicides and suicides.

After questions arose about the office's authority to share the information with others, legislators approved AB173, signed last year by Gov. Gavin Newsom, allowing the newly established California Firearm Violence Research Center at UC Davis to receive the data and provide it to other researchers. Their main goal is to determine whether state laws allowing family members or police to obtain court orders prohibiting someone from possessing a gun have reduced violence.

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

Although many gun owners make their purchases in public, and can be seen at shooting ranges, that does not mean "there is no reasonable expectation of privacy for all owners' private identifying information," Bacal wrote. And while the state shared identifying information with researchers as recently as last November, she said, "this does not account for the potential ongoing and future harms that could occur by continuous use of the information." She also cited reports of "a massive data breach" this June that revealed identifying information of applicants for permits to carry concealed weapons.

Bacal said she would not require the state to withdraw information it has already provided to researchers, but she prohibited any further disclosures pending a final decision on whether the law's claimed intrusion on privacy outweighs California's interest in allowing researchers to review the data.

The law is one of a series of gun measures in California that are being challenged by firearms groups as the U.S. Supreme Court narrows states' authority to restrict gun possession. After a ruling in June overturning laws in states, including California, that require residents to show a need for self-defense in order to carry concealed firearms in public, the justices ordered lower courts in California to reconsider the legality of a voter-approved ban on gun magazines that can hold more than 10 cartridges.

In response to the ruling on gun research, the Firearms Policy Coalition, one of a half dozen 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 can't be trusted with the private personal information of its residents," Bill Sack, the organization's legal director, said in a statement. He said the ruling "reinforces what FPC has been arguing all along; that you needn't be forced to open your front door to immoral government intrusion in order to exercise your fundamental rights."

Attorney General Rob Bonta's office said it was disappointed by the ruling.

"Research and collaboration would help protect our communities from gun violence and save lives," Bonta's office said. "We will continue this fight in court."

©2022 the San Francisco Chronicle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.