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Gun owners sue over California law allowing personal information to be used in research

A customer fills out the necessary paperwork to purchase a rifle at AO Sword Firearms in El Cajon. (Nelvin C. Cepeda/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

A group of gun owners has filed a civil rights lawsuit in San Diego federal court challenging a recently passed California law that allows their personal information to be shared with university gun-violence researchers.

The lawsuit was filed late Wednesday by the National Rifle Association on behalf of five gun owners, including three who live in San Diego County. The court has been viewed as a friendly venue by gun-rights advocates due to recent opinions that have dismantled large portions of California’s firearm-regulation scheme.

In this case, the gun owners argue that they are already required to give up a great deal of personal information — including name, date of birth, address, phone number, physical description, occupation and in some cases Social Security number — in order to exercise their constitutional right to bear arms under California’s strict gun laws.

Such information is collected by the California Department of Justice for purposes of conducting background checks to register gun buyers and license holders. It is then kept in a state database that tracks all firearms transactions by licensed dealers.

Gun owners say they submitted their personal information upon assurances that it would be kept for law enforcement purposes only.

Assembly Bill 173, which went into effect immediately upon being approved Sept. 23, expanded who has access to such information.

The law allows personal information in the state repository to be shared with the California Firearm Violence Research Center at UC Davis — a program that was previously established by the Legislature “with a mission to provide the scientific evidence on which sound firearm violence prevention policies can be based.”

The law also allows the personal information to be distributed to, at the DOJ’s discretion, “any other nonprofit bona fide research institution accredited by the United States Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.”

The material must only be used for research or statistical activities to study the prevention of violence and prohibits any subsequent reports or publications from identifying specific people, according to the law.

Researchers have long complained about a lack of data and funding to conduct gun-violence research. In 1996, Congress prohibited the use of federal funding to advocate or promote gun control in the so-called Dickey amendment — named after Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Ark. The rider was passed after NRA lobbyists argued that CDC-funded research was biased on the topic.

CDC research was not banned, but effectively stifled.

The lawsuit argues that the amendment does not explicitly prevent researchers from further disseminating personal information nor does it provide for an enforcement mechanism to ensure the data stays confidential. Attorneys also point to the risk of the data being compromised in hacking attacks that target universities.

The gun-owner plaintiffs, including a vocational nurse identified only as Jane Doe, cite security concerns about the possibility of being publicly outed.

“Mrs. Doe believes that her status as a handgun owner is a private, personal matter, and that public disclosure of her Personal Information and status as a handgun owner will subject her to unwanted public attention, harassment, threats, and physical violence by individuals and groups including persons in the community who are hostile to guns and gun owners,” the lawsuit states.

Other plaintiffs, also unnamed, include a retired state correctional officer, a retired San Bernardino sheriff’s deputy and an Air Force veteran.

A spokesperson for California Attorney General Rob Bonta, who is named as the sole defendant in the lawsuit, said Wednesday night that the lawsuit had not yet been served.

“The Attorney General will continue to enforce and defend the state’s laws, including AB 173, and its provisions that seek to improve public safety by providing research institutions with the data they need to study gun violence in order to help us prevent it,” the spokesperson said.

Dr. Garen Wintemute, a physician who runs the gun-violence research program at UC Davis, referred comment to Bonta’s office.

The case has been assigned randomly to U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Whalen. However, the NRA attorneys cited an ongoing related case — a 2018 NRA-funded lawsuit that challenges a state law requiring background checks for ammunition purchases — that is being heard by U.S. District Court Judge Roger Benitez.

Under a court rule, the same judge may hear related cases, although such a designation can be contested.

Benitez issued a preliminary injunction against the state in the ammunition case and has handed down other decisions in the past few years that have found parts of California gun law unconstitutional, including its ban on rifles declared “assault weapons.”


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