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California AG office withholding data on gun sales, restraining orders from researchers

California AG office withholding data on gun sales, restraining orders from researchers

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Attorney General Xavier Becerra's office is withholding gun violence data from a state-funded research institution tasked by lawmakers with evaluating California's firearm regulations and also is directing universities to destroy records the agency previously released.

Researchers at the UC Davis California Firearm Violence Research Center say that over the last several years, the Department of Justice has made it increasingly difficult to access data only it maintains, despite a legal mandate to provide the records.

The Legislature in 2016 passed a law to establish and fund the center, which works alongside an existing gun violence research program at UC Davis. The idea was to support independent research to identify policies that best prevent deaths and injuries caused by gun violence.

The researchers are hitting a wall, however, when asking Becerra's agency for data on gun violence restraining orders, firearm sales records and the state's effort to disarm individuals who pose a danger to themselves and the public.

Without the data, center Director Dr. Garen Wintemute said, certain research projects are now impossible to complete.

The department is "effectively, knowledgeably, shutting down research on some of the most important policies in California," Wintemute said. "I believe that science saves lives. Lives are in the balance here."

The 2016 law tasks the Department of Justice with providing "the data necessary for the center to conduct its research." The information often includes personal identifiers like names, court case numbers, dates of birth and gender or sex.

Because they're sensitive documents, the Department of Justice's research center requires a rigorous application process to ensure data are properly secured.

And for three decades, Wintemute said the Department of Justice supported his research and approved his requests. In 2016, that support was on full display when then-Attorney General Kamala Harris urged the Legislature to pass the bill that set up and financed the center.

But in 2017, after Becerra took office, Wintemute said he noticed a stark difference in how the department handled his data applications.

Data denial

The agency first challenged a data request that year for a study into whether a gun violence restraining order law implemented in 2016 was working.

The so-called "red flag" orders allow family members and law enforcement personnel to petition a court for the temporary removal of firearms from someone who's considered dangerous.

Wintemute asked the Legislature for help. Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, wrote a law to clarify and codify the Department of Justice's duty to release gun violence restraining order data.

"This bill makes it clear that researchers at the Firearm Violence Research Center and, at Department of Justice's discretion, any other nonprofit educational institution or public agency immediately concerned with the study and prevention of violence, can access gun violence restraining order information," a committee analysis of the law said.

The agency released the data, and Wintemute and his team went on to publish a 2019 study that identified 21 instances in which gun violence restraining orders helped prevent mass shootings.

But the center's success was short-lived.

A request to delete records

The agency again blocked a data renewal request in 2020, Wintemute said, after researchers requested fresh records for the next phase of a large-scale evaluation of the department's system to identify and remove guns from illegally armed people.

That time, Wintemute said, Department of Justice officials said his team had to terminate the study and delete existing data.

"Which is just wrong," Wintemute said.

The agency has also told Wintemute that it will no longer provide certain identifiers, like names, in annual gun violence restraining order data transfers.

The department said it's doing that to "protect Californians' privacy," and has since proposed regulations to enshrine this practice into policy.

That decision would make research similar to the 2019 mass shootings study impossible, Wintemute said, because the study relied heavily on identifying information other public records don't include. The law has also expanded to allow co-workers, employers and school employees people to request restraining orders, which requires updated research.

Another project to study "very atypical patterns of firearm purchasing" by mass shooters in California hangs in the balance, as does the expansion of a Stanford University study that found handgun ownership increases suicide risk.

The Stanford team was also told to halt their study and wipe their dataset clean, said Wintemute, who co-wrote the report.

Former Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, who wrote the 2016 law and now serves as chair of the center's advisory board, said the restrictions jeopardize California's standing as a national leader of gun violence research.

"The importance of data and research is to create successful policy outcomes," Wolk said. "Without it, you are flying blind. Whatever is happening with respect to stopping research has to end."

Both Wintemute and Wolk said the department has not offered a legal explanation as to why it has contested data requests.

A department spokesperson said in an email the agency supported gun violence research, but was also obligated to protect confidential information according to various legal requirements.

"The California Department of Justice values data-driven research and its role in pushing forward informed public policy to help combat problems like gun violence," the spokesperson wrote. "We also take seriously our duty to protect Californians' sensitive personally identifying information, and must follow the letter of the law regarding disclosures of the personal information in the data we collect and maintain."

Wintemute has overseen gun violence research at UC Davis since the 1980s, and said he's never opposed rules to avoid data breaches. To ensure safekeeping, a limited number of researchers have access to the data and records are managed under a password-protected server.

"I am as interested in protecting privacy as they are," Wintemute said.

A legislative intervention

Wintemute is now turning to an arm of government where he's had more luck — the Legislature.

Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, wrote a measure to confirm the department's legal responsibility to provide the center and other research institutions with identifying information in their gun ownership-related data.

"There's no question that it's not helpful for the Department of Justice to add more restrictive regulations when the Legislature and governor have sent the department a clear signal and mandate that it's public information," Ting said. "It's critical data."

The department hasn't taken a position on the bill, but the spokesperson said the agency "notes that the bill acknowledges some of the authorization concerns at issue."

The researchers and their advocates are hoping the measure will restore a former collaborative spirit between the center and department.

Steve Lindley, who served as chief of the department's Bureau of Firearms until 2018, said he worked for years to provide data for Wintemute and other world-renowned researchers interested in reviewing the agency's policies "to see if we were doing it right." Lindley now works as a program manager at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

"If it is efficient and we have evidence research to do that, we can take a law from California and make it work in Arizona, Nevada, Texas," Lindley said.

Wintemute said he believes Ting's proposal could finally establish a clearer process to obtain data, with important identifiers, which would help teams like his complete "cutting-edge" research that saves lives.

"We are going to toughen the mandates once again," Wintemute said. "The Legislature and the governor in their wisdom may or may not adopt the bill, but if they do, 'Excuse me Department of Justice, here's a statutory mandate and you are in violation of the law.'"

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