Court Rules California Can Give Researchers Gun Ownership Information

Court Rules California Can Give Researchers Gun Ownership Information
A firearm is holstered at the Orange County Sheriff's Department Law Enforcement Shooting Range in Orange, Calif., on March 30, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
Jill McLaughlin
California can continue to share private information about gun owners with researchers after a state appeals court reversed a lower court’s ruling in a Nov. 17 opinion.
A law expanding access to such personal information went into effect on Sept. 23, 2021, allowing the state to share the data with the California Firearm Violence Research Center at the University of California–Davis.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) filed a civil rights lawsuit in San Diego federal court in October 2022 on behalf of five gun owners, including three who lived in San Diego County.

In the lawsuit, gun owners asserted that they were already required to give up ample personal information, including their name, date of birth, address, phone number, physical description, occupation, and sometimes their Social Security number, to buy firearms under the state’s heavily regulated gun-control laws.

The plaintiffs also claimed that they submitted such information to the state with assurances that it would be kept for law enforcement purposes only.

A ruling in the San Diego County Superior Court temporarily blocked the law in October 2022 but was appealed by the state.

On Nov. 17, a three-judge Court of Appeals for the 4th District in Sacramento, California, sent the case back to the lower court in San Diego, stating that it had abused its discretion by granting an injunction because it failed to consider the state’s interest in studying and preventing gun violence before blocking the law.

Associate Justice Julia C. Kelety ordered the lower court to reverse its order.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta celebrated the decision on Nov. 20.

“The court’s decision is a victory in our ongoing efforts to prevent gun violence,” Mr. Bonta said in a statement. “AB 173’s information-sharing serves the important goal of enabling research that supports informed policymaking aimed at reducing and preventing firearm violence.”

Attorneys representing the plaintiffs didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Since the 1950s, California state law has required its Department of Justice (DOJ) to collect records of handgun sales. More recently, the state also began to collect data about long guns and ammunition.

Since at least 1989, the University of California–Davis has used the data in studies aimed at understanding firearm violence. In 2016, the Legislature directed UC Regents to establish the Firearm Violence Research Center to produce research about firearm violence and work with policymakers to identify, implement, and evaluate prevention policies and programs, according to Mr. Bonta’s office.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta speaks at a news conference in Santa Ana, Calif., on Sept. 8, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
California Attorney General Rob Bonta speaks at a news conference in Santa Ana, Calif., on Sept. 8, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
The research center released a study in March that examined gun purchases in the state, claiming that it had found that mass and active shooters had distinct patterns in buying guns as compared with other legal purchasers.

“Efforts to develop tools to predict who will commit violence have fallen short of expectations,” said the first author of the study, Liz Tomsich, a research data analyst at UC–Davis’s Violence Prevention Research Program, which works alongside the center. “These new findings of pre-attack acquisition behaviors among mass and active shooters suggest purchasing histories that may deserve further scrutiny for preventing mass shootings.”

Researchers used publicly available databases to identify active and mass shooters from California who committed attacks between 1985 and 2018. A crime analyst at the California DOJ cross-referenced media reports and criminal and transaction histories to compose profiles for each shooter.

Using the profiles, the researchers linked shooters who attacked between 1996 and 2018 to the DOJ’s dealer record of sale database. Using the state data of 22 mass and active shooters, they claim that they could identify those with a history of authorized transactions.

The database has collected information on all authorized handgun purchasers and transactions in the state since 1985, with detailed transaction data starting in 1996.

A firearm is confiscated by police officers in Westminster, Calif., on May 10, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
A firearm is confiscated by police officers in Westminster, Calif., on May 10, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

The study concluded that the shooters who attacked between 1996 and 2018 purchased more handguns in the year before their attack, bought their first gun at an older age, and were more likely to have a history of denied purchases, according to the university.

Researchers also reported that active shooters between 1985 and 2018 most often had illegally bought long guns, purchased out of state, to use during the attack.

Hannah Laqueur, an assistant professor in the university’s Department of Emergency Medicine and senior author of the study, said the findings helped to inform them about mass and active shooters’ behaviors.

“Future research could aid in the determination of whether the acquisition patterns characterizing mass and active shooters could be used in conjunction with other indicators of pre-attack planning to trigger a response from law enforcement and other intervention specialists,” Ms. Laqueur said in a March 17 statement about the research.

Jill McLaughlin is an award-winning journalist covering politics, environment, and statewide issues. She has been a reporter and editor for newspapers in Oregon, Nevada, and New Mexico. Jill was born in Yosemite National Park and enjoys the majestic outdoors, traveling, golfing, and hiking.