Assemblymember Phil Ting has introduced legislation requiring the California Department of Justice to release data to researchers. <ins>(Ellie Doyen/Special to S.F. Examiner)</ins>

Assemblymember Phil Ting has introduced legislation requiring the California Department of Justice to release data to researchers. (Ellie Doyen/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Researchers struggle to get access to gun violence data from state DOJ

Assemblymember Phil Ting says information vital to guiding policy debates

Assemblymember Phil Ting wants the California Department of Justice to release gun violence data he says is vital to guiding public policy debates.

In response to proposed regulations that would allow the state Department of Justice to withhold the personal information of people with gun violence restraining orders, Ting drafted Assembly Bill 1237, which would reiterate the department’s duty to release such information to researchers.

“This data is absolutely critical,” Ting said. “If we don’t have data, we can’t do the research, and the data that they’ve gotten has already proven many of our policies to be effective, including my expansion of gun violence restraining orders. Gun violence restraining orders save lives.”

Gun violence researchers say that under former California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, the DOJ, which cites privacy concerns as justification for the change in regulations, has been withholding important information for the past few years.

“DOJ has, in my mind, created a fiction that they’re still giving us the data, ignoring the fact that they’re only giving us part of the data,” said Dr. Garen Wintemute, director of the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program. “And what they leave out is essential to the work.”

The requested data includes personal information about those who have gun violence restraining orders, or GVROs: orders signed by the court that “prohibit and enjoin the named person from having in their custody or control, owning, purchasing, possessing, or receiving firearms or ammunition,” according to California Penal Code 18100.

Wintemute says this information is vital to the program because much of its work focuses on individual case studies. Based on current law, the department should already be providing this information to researchers.

“DOJ, in our view, is required by law to give us those records for research purposes,” Wintemute said. “And for several years, they did, and then they – for our purposes – stopped. They stopped giving us the identities of the people who were the subjects of the orders, which makes it impossible to do the kind of individual level case tracking that you need to do to evaluate whether policy works.”

The DOJ cited concerns about Californians’ privacy and personal information, with a department spokesperson stating, “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. We also take seriously our duty to protect Californians’ sensitive personally identifying information. The proposed draft regulations are intended to balance these concerns and establish best practices.”

While the information sought is public, it is not necessarily attainable to UC Davis researchers, Wintemute said. To track it, they would have to put someone in each county courthouse throughout the state, and watch for GVRO cases daily – a model that is “simply not sustainable.’

Wintemute added that as a doctor and a researcher, he is “acutely aware of the need to protect privacy,” and said the program has not had a breach of security throughout its existence.

“At any time, DOJ could have said, ‘We have a concern about privacy,’ and we would have sat down and worked that through with them,” Wintemute said. “But what they did instead was basically refuse to meet for a long time.”

The restrictions on this data are especially concerning because California has stricter gun laws than many states, meaning research on its laws’ effectiveness can only occur here, making it particularly valuable.

Ting and nine other California legislators wrote an open letter to Becerra outlining their concerns about the proposed changes.

“We are concerned by this failure to abide by a statutory mandate that serves the public’s interest,” the letter said. “We hope the department will revise the regulations to ensure that the state funded University of California Firearm Violence Research Center continues to have access to this critical information.”

The Department of Justice’s proposed GRVO regulations are in draft form and subject to change. The public comment period is open through March 26.

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