Proof Gun Owner Registries Don’t Work

The recent data leak in New Zealand’s firearms registration has sparked worry and highlighted the risks of well-intended government efforts. While the goal of improving public safety is desirable, it is critical to evaluate the potential implications of laws that violate the privacy and civil liberties of law-abiding persons. As we reflect on this situation, we wonder how similar circumstances may play out in America if similar databases existed.

Following the 2019 mass shooting at a Christchurch mosque, New Zealand enacted a series of policies aimed at preventing future disasters. Among these improvements was the establishment of a national “firearms registry,” a mechanism designed to link firearms with the license holders who own them. In theory, this registry would give authorities a better picture of legally possessed firearms and help them hunt them down. However, as recent events have shown, the practical implementation of such rules can be riddled with challenges.

The most recent hack exposed gun owners’ personal information, demonstrating that even the best-laid plans are subject to unforeseeable failures. In this example, an email intended for 147 registered gun owners accidentally revealed recipients’ email addresses and, in some cases, their names. This breach in data protection is far from isolated. During the 2019 gun buyback, a website designed to allow gun owners to register their firearms for surrender mistakenly exposed registrants’ personal information, including sensitive details such as names, addresses, and even bank account information.

A more serious breach happened in 2022, when up to 400 gun owners’ records were stolen from an abandoned police station. These occurrences highlight the limitations of data protection methods as well as the risk of sensitive information being misused.

These occurrences pose significant considerations in the context of the United States, where federal law prohibits national gun owner registry. While many states have different types of registries, the overarching concern is the protection of individual liberties. Advocates for expanding gun registries frequently believe that they are effective instruments for reducing illegal gun activity and encouraging responsible gun ownership. However, as demonstrated by the New Zealand breaches, the possibility of unintended effects cannot be overlooked.

Critics argue that a registry today might pave the path for gun confiscation tomorrow, inciting dread among gun owners about the possibility of their information being misused. Furthermore, the bureaucratic problem of keeping accurate data and avoiding false arrests in a large system is a major worry. Another difficulty is noncompliance, as illustrated by New Zealand’s experience, when a significant fraction of newly outlawed weapons were not turned in.

The potential damage to privacy inherent in government registries is perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn from New Zealand’s data breaches. The unintentional disclosure of personal information highlights the vulnerability of large-scale data systems, even with the best of intentions. The breach, according to Nicole McKee, guns spokesman for the New Zealand political party ACT, “shows once again that police are incapable of keeping licensed firearms owners’ information secure.”

In a world increasingly reliant on digital infrastructure, striking a balance between public safety and individual liberty is critical. The instances in New Zealand serve as a stark reminder that even well-intended government programs can mistakenly infringe on citizens’ privacy and security. As we analyze the lessons from across the water, it is becoming increasingly vital to approach legislative reforms with a careful and methodical approach, ensuring that the rights of law-abiding citizens remain a top priority.