Do Gun Owners Deserve Data Privacy, Too?

Kayla Matthews

Gun Owners and Data Privacy

That the United States witnesses an unprecedented number of mass shootings in an average year is beyond dispute. What we’ve made contentious is where we go from here. No matter how you feel about guns in general, it’s clear that our States-wide patchwork of inconsistent firearm laws unnecessarily complicates an already incendiary rhetorical and practical dilemma.

One proposal for making the firearm trade, and firearm owners, more accountable in the States is a so-called “gun ownership registry.” It’s emerged as one of the frontrunners when it comes to drawing up a legislation-based response to America’s rash of public violence.

But the idea is misunderstood at best, and potentially, depending on who you ask, even a threat to the privacy of law-abiding citizens. Let’s remove a little of the uncertainty if we can.

What Would a ‘Gun Registry’ Actually Do?

The idea, say proponents, would introduce some much-needed visibility into the somewhat murky and inconsistent process of buying and selling a weapon in America. More specifically, it would give authorities a tool for tracking the ownership of such weapons when they’re used — or, potentially, likely to be used — in a violent crime. Conventional wisdom says that this level of traceability and visibility would “help keep gun owners honest.”

Pew Research Center polled American adults in June 2017 on the subject of a federal-level database to track gun sales and weapon ownership. The results indicated that 71 percent of Americans likely favor the idea.

The basic idea here has been prohibited by law since 1986’s Firearm Owners’ Protection Act. The law made it illegal for the ATF to assemble a database explicitly linking firearms to their owners.

Given that the Las Vegas shooter amassed weapons in incredible quantity prior to his carrying out the deadliest such attack on American soil, proponents of the gun ownership database say cases like Stephen Paddock’s would have tripped red flags and alerted authorities that suspicious quantities of weapons were changing hands.

Paddock’s hotel room and home yielded 47 weapons upon being searched after the incident, according to the FBI. Would knowing about this hoarding in advance have prevented tragedy? Potentially not. The benefits are all to hindsight.

Hawaii’s Process

Hawaii provides one model for how such a system could work. Since 2016, any crime committed by a gun owner in Hawaii automatically triggers an alert with the FBI. In other words, the database is used after the fact by investigators to track the path of weapons involved in crimes.

Nevertheless, the state’s governor, David Ige, has acknowledged that the 2016 laws effectively give state police the right to “evaluate” the fitness — and therefore the legal right — of any gun owner in the state to possess deadly weapons. Says governor Ige: “This is about our community’s safety and responsible gun ownership … [and] this system will better enable our law enforcement agencies to ensure the security of all Hawaii residents and visitors to our islands.

One interpretation of Hawaii’s implementation of its gun ownership database is that it gives gun owners the impression and some of the implications of being actively surveilled without actually doing so. Hawaii’s intended applications of this data appear to have been designed to aid law enforcement after the fact — not as a means to curtail weapon sales in the first place.

So why haven’t groups like the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and the Brady Campaign made any headway on turning the vision of a national gun ownership registry into a reality? Mostly, it’s because opponents argue that the concept is a threat to gun owners’ fundamental rights to privacy. The NRA responded to Hawaii’s 2016 passage of its laws by claiming that people were being added to “watch lists” — persecuted — for “practicing their rights.”

Why Oversight of Dangerous Products Might Be a Privacy Violation

The opposition to such a database is led most vocally by the National Rifle Association, whose major argument is that a firearm database is the first step in a State seizure of privately owned weapons. The NRA — and other advocates for Remington’s and Colt’s valued customers — spent years drawing unfounded parallels between Obama-era calls for universal background checks and proposals for a “database.” They are not the same thing.

Opponents of the measure argue that would-be shooters don’t necessarily amass weapons before committing crimes in a way that would raise flags among authorities. But the crux of the argument generally falls back to ideological ground:

The Second Amendment — and the spirit of American-style democracy in general — forbids the State from telling an otherwise law-abiding citizen how many, and which types, of a given type of product they can own, provided they took possession of those products legally.

Another theory suggests that authorities will be more likely to paint multiple-gun-owning homes with suspicion and be more likely to invoke “probable cause” to search such a home or add occupants to watch lists.

Law-abiding gun owners, not intended criminals, will be subjected to unfair and burdensome “red tape” when it comes to purchasing firearms. More than one-quarter of gun sales are made to individuals who have personal and family protection in mind — and there’s nothing illegal, nor inherently suspect, about legally purchasing a product that enables you to engage in that kind of protection.

Meanwhile, proponents of the gun ownership database argue that firearms are fundamentally unlike any other product available to the public, and so must receive unique levels of oversight. It is extremely easy, the logic goes, for authorities to trace the distribution of a variety of other product types, most of which were not designed to inflict harm the way firearms were.

And most of us have made peace with surrendering intimate details about our shopping habits to all kinds of third parties, oftentimes without our knowledge or consent. Facebook reportedly uses 98 data points to serve ads to its users — not just one. Whether or not we’ve purchased a gun is just one variable among many.

No matter your political leanings, it’s clear to see how legal and civil precedent, plus concerns for the public good and for rights holders, inform both sides of the argument.

New York made an attempt similar to Hawaii’s — the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act — but it was defeated in 2013, indicating ongoing controversy over the idea of making gun owners register their purchases.

The privacy concerns are real, as are the safety concerns, which means it’s time for decisions to be made that everyone can live with.

By Kayla Matthews

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