ATF form 4473 used during gun background checks
ATF form 4473 used during gun background checks / Screenshot

Analysis: The California Data Leak Vindicates Gun Owner Registry Fears [Member Exclusive]

The government of California and gun-rights advocates have long had a bit of a tenuous relationship. But following an egregious new data leak, the state may have unintentionally vindicated the concerns of many gun owners in the state and across the country.

The Reload confirmed on Tuesday that the personal identifying information of thousands of the state’s concealed-carry permit holders was exposed when the state rolled out its 2022 Firearms Dashboard Portal. But Attorney General Rob Bonta (D.) later revealed that the leak was in fact far worse. Beyond private data on permit holders statewide, data from the state’s “assault weapons” registry and dealer records of sale were also leaked, as well as information on gun violence restraining orders, the state’s handgun roster, and firearms safety certificates.

The personal data, which was eventually removed, included details like name, race, address, date of birth, and the type of permit issued–which indicated if a holder was a police officer or judge.

“This unauthorized release of personal information is unacceptable and falls far short of my expectations for this department,” Attorney General Bonta said. “I immediately launched an investigation into how this occurred at the California Department of Justice and will take strong corrective measures where necessary.”

While a swift investigation into the leak is indeed warranted, gun owners will take little solace in the Attorney General’s statement. That’s because such data was only available to be leaked due to the unparalleled requirements California imposes on record keeping, information sharing, and registration for gun owners in the state.

California law has required the registration of handguns since 1998 and all long guns since 2014. Additionally, the state keeps centralized records of all firearm purchases or transfers at California licensed dealers in the state. The same is true for registered “assault weapons”, individual reports of firearm ownership required to be submitted to the California Department of Justice, concealed weapons permit records, and records entered by state law enforcement agencies.

Many gun owners have long been opposed to such onerous record-keeping, particularly gun registries, out of fear that detailed records could be used to facilitate future government confiscation efforts. But a close second to those fears are concerns over gun-owner privacy and safety from being targeted by criminals. Those concerns were expressed yet again in the aftermath of the DOJ’s data leak.

“The Attorney General has put thousands of people in danger by essentially handing criminals a ‘shopping list’ of homes to burglarize in search of firearms, a list of judges to murder, addresses of stalking victims for their stalkers to find, locations of battered women and rape survivors, and home addresses for police officers,” Chuck Michel, President of the California Rifle & Pistol Association (CRPA), said of the leak. “Careers of individuals excising their right to self-protection may now be in jeopardy given this public disclosure as well.”

Making matters worse, California had already begun upping the risk to gun owners’ privacy even before the flawed rollout of the state firearm dashboard. It passed a law just last year authorizing the state DOJ to release all of its records associated with firearm and ammunition purchases–including personal identifying information–to a newly created research center at the University of California Davis or any other university that requests them.

That move drew a legal challenge from the NRA who equated the mandatory data disclosure to state-sanctioned “doxing.” The group attempted to have the law blocked while the lawsuit played out but was denied by a federal judge who was not persuaded that the privacy concerns surrounding the law warranted an emergency injunction.

In a new filing, the NRA argued the leak perfectly showcases the privacy concerns at hand. The gun-rights group said the judge relied on California’s insistence it would protect gun owners’ data.

“Now, however, the newly discovered evidence […] shows not only that there is a risk of public disclosure, but that such public disclosure occurred despite Defendant’s representations to the contrary,” the group wrote in its filing. “Plaintiffs thus have suffered irreparable harm warranting an injunction. Moreover, Defendant’s conduct shows that, in the absence of an injunction, there is nothing to stop Defendant from once again disclosing Plaintiffs’ Personal Information to the public or third parties.”

The damage done by the leak cannot be overstated, not only for the trust of the gun-owning population in California but for gun owners nationwide who have had their hostility toward firearm record-keeping reinforced by the scandal.

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Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019

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Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019

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