California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is no friend to gun owners. Not only has he defended every California gun control law currently on the books, he’s partnered with gun control groups to sue the ATF in an attempt to force the agency to redefine the word “firearm” under federal law to include unfinished frames and receivers that are currently legal to purchase without a background check.
Becerra, however, has drawn the ire of one gun control advocate in California, to the point that he’s going public with his complaints that the anti-gun AG is witholding data from researchers in the state. Garin Wintemute, who heads up California’s Firearm Violence Research Center at the University of California-Davis and has been an advocate for more gun control laws, says Becerra’s office has become increasingly hostile to releasing data to researchers, even after lawmakers approved legislation several years ago that mandates the Department of Justice do so.
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.
Wintemute tells the Sacramento Bee that, back when Kamala Harris was Attorney General, CalDOJ was very helpful in giving researchers the material that they requested, but once Becerra took office in 2017, he noticed a change in the office’s attitude.
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.
The Bee goes on to detail more obstruction on the part of CalDOJ in 2020, when Wintemute’s request for data for a a “large-scale evaluation of the department’s system to identify and remove guns from illegally armed people,” was rejected by the agency.
So, what’s going on here? Why is Becerra, who’s never met a gun control law he didn’t like, so reticent to provide data from his office to researchers that are pushing for more gun control laws? It’s not like Garen Wintemute is ever going to be confused with John Lott, the pro-Second Amendment researcher who heads up the Crime Prevention Research Center. Wintemute is firmly situated in the gun control community, so why is Becerra making it harder for Wintemute to do his work?
According to CalDOJ, it’s because Wintemute is making requests for data that he’s not entitled to, including the names of individuals subjected to California’s red flag gun seizure orders.
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.
Frankly, I don’t think CalDOJ or Garen Wintemute are all that concerned about protecting the privacy of gun owners, but I do think that Becerra would like to pick his legal battles, and having to defend his office in a lawsuit filed by people who’s data was released in violation of state law probably isn’t a fight he’s interested in having. Even if it would be helpful to Wintemute, it’s not helpful to Becerra’s own political career, so why go out on a legal limb to help Wintemute in his anti-gun research?
Of course, California’s Department of Justice may have a new boss in the near future if Becerra is confirmed to serve as Joe Biden’s secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Wintemute’s not waiting to see if the next AG will be more amenable to his anti-gun research, however. He’s now asking the state legislature to re-iterate to CalDOJ that it is required to release the data, including identifying information, to researchers who ask for it.