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Court Overturns Ruling, Allows California to Share Gun Buyer Data

The state appeals court has overturned a San Diego Superior Court ruling that would have barred the state from sharing registered gun and ammunition owners’ personal information for research purposes.

a shopper looks over firearms for sale
On March 19, 2020, a shopper looks over firearms for sale at AO Sword Firearms in El Cajon, California.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)
A California appeals court has overturned a San Diego Superior Court ruling that prohibited the state from sharing the personal information of registered gun and ammunition owners for research purposes, as mandated by law.

The ruling Friday by the 4th District Court of Appeal is a win for the Firearm Violence Research Center based at UC Davis and others studying patterns of gun violence.

"The court's decision is an important victory for science. It reaffirms the value of objective evidence in understanding and intervening on important health problems, firearm violence among them," said Dr. Garen Wintemute, a professor in emergency medicine and director of the Center.

"For more than 30 years, researchers at UC Davis and elsewhere have used the data in question to conduct vital research that simply couldn't be done anywhere else," he added. "We're glad to be able to return to that important work, which will improve health and safety here in California and across the country."

The ruling orders the Superior Court to reverse and then deny a preliminary injunction that was put into place blocking the state Department of Justice from providing personally identifying information to researchers.

Attorney General Rob Bonta applauded the outcome Tuesday: "Research and data are vital in our efforts to prevent gun violence in California and provide a clear path to help us save lives."

Attorneys representing the various gun-owner plaintiffs did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Gun research has long been a discipline fraught with hurdles.

Beginning in at least 1989, the state DOJ has granted UC Davis researchers access to data that is already collected from gun purchasers by law — everything from name and date of birth to address, occupation and criminal history, according to court records. The researchers used the data back then to conduct "research on risk factors for criminal activity among legal purchasers of firearms" in work that was supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which had identified gun violence as a public health issue.

However, CDC research was effectively stifled when Congress in 1996 prohibited the use of federal funding to advocate or promote gun control, a measure that was passed after NRA lobbyists argued that CDC-funded research was biased on the topic. But the California data remained available to researchers continuing their work.

In 2016, the California Legislature established the Firearm Violence Research Center to further emphasize its desire for research to prevent violence and help inform public policymaking.

But the DOJ stopped sharing the database information with the Center shortly after. And in 2021, then-Attorney General Xavier Becerra said the agency would restrict the release of certain kinds of data, citing privacy concerns.

In response, the Legislature amended the law with Senate Bill 173 and reiterated DOJ's duty to provide the information upon request to the Center as well as researchers at "other bona fide and accredited nonprofit research institutions" with proper approval.

San Diego County resident Ashleymarie Barba and several gun-rights groups filed a lawsuit last year challenging those amendments. They argued that the data-sharing "constitutes a severe privacy intrusion that is not adequately tailored to or justified by the state's purported research interest" and therefore violates their rights to privacy under the state constitution.

Superior Court Judge Katherine Bacal granted the motion for a preliminary injunction, barring the DOJ from sharing any more data on gun and ammunition buyers. Bonta appealed.

A three-judge appellate panel found that the lower court judge did not use the appropriate legal standard when she granted the preliminary injunction and did not properly consider the state's "countervailing interest." The panel further found that the gun-owner plaintiffs did not show that they would likely win on the merits of their lawsuit.

A separate lawsuit challenging SB 173 on Second Amendment and other grounds is currently on appeal in federal court. District Judge Larry Burns dismissed the case in January but oral argument is expected early next year at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal.

©2023 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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