The state has reversed course on a plan to share potentially identifying information contained in decades of gun transactions it had recently posted online following complaints by gun rights groups and inquiries by the Herald.
Last week, the Herald learned the state had released about two decades worth of firearms sales and transfer data via the mass.gov website and that a pair of gun rights advocacy groups were calling for the removal of the files from public review.
“We were recently made aware that the Firearms Record Bureau posted links to extensive data covering every recorded gun transaction in Massachusetts going back nearly twenty years,” Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners Action League, wrote.
Wallace and the gun group Commonwealth Second Amendment were up in arms because, they said, releasing those transaction records violates a state law barring the government from “divulging” names and addresses of gun owners.
Chapter 66 of the General Laws, section 10B, indicates the state “shall not disclose any records divulging or tending to divulge the names and addresses of persons who own or possess firearms, rifles, shotguns, machine guns and ammunition.”
According to Wallace, the information made available online did not include names or addresses directly but did include enough information for someone to figure out those missing parts.
“The data files do not use buyers’ names, but it does assign everyone, including retailers, a unique numerical identification number,” Wallace said. “The data, now made public and downloadable, provides your ID number, the specific gun you bought, and your town zip code. It also provides the same information about the person or retailer you bought it from. Given all that information the data is very easy to decode.”
A Herald reporter was able to find their own firearms transactions in the listed information, despite no name or address being attached, and to consequently use any seller’s ID to view any transactions they made.
As of Thursday evening, the state reported back to the Herald they would remove the offending ID numbers from the downloadable spreadsheets to ensure compliance with the law and privacy of gun owners. They had done so by Friday.
“The Bureau is aware of concerns raised about this transaction data and has since adjusted online posting practices to ensure compliance with laws related to public safety and personal privacy,” a spokesperson for the Department of Criminal Justice Information Services said in an emailed statement.
Transaction information was posted in the first place, a spokesperson told the Herald, due to a high volume of public records requests for that specific information and to save the state the time and effort of individually responding to each request.
“The Firearms Records Bureau remains committed to fulfilling its mandate to provide public access to comprehensive, timely and accurate firearm-related data while balancing public safety needs and individuals’ privacy rights,” the spokesperson said.
Sharing gun transaction data may seem innocuous, Wallace told the Herald, but with that information a criminal could determine who does or doesn’t have a gun.
“That law was passed to protect that information back in the 80s because the Globe threatened to publish the names and addresses of every gun owner in the state,” he said. “It would have been like giving people who want to steal a gun a shopping list, and letting criminals know who can’t defend themselves.”
The transaction data, most of which is still posted, covers 2004 to 2021 for every license application and renewal, transaction by firearms dealers, and personal sale and transfer between private citizens.
The Department did not say when they shared the information or how long it was available, though the website indicates it was updated this January.
The damage is likely done, Wallace said, since the electronic records were made available in the first place and nothing dies on the internet.
“So now what? If the government violates the law, there is no punishment. Even if we won in court, what is our remedy? It’s downloadable,” he said. “What do you do now that that information is out there?”
Besides which, Wallace said, he’s still not happy any data is there for viewing and his group will sue to see it taken down.
“There is still way too much information up,” he said. “There is no need for the public to know this stuff.”