California has long played a pivotal role in gun violence studies. maintaining a repository of detailed information on gun owners that it shares with researchers. The National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups have filed lawsuits challenging that practice. The lawsuits come as researchers confront an uptick in gun-related deaths, driven by a surge in homicides. They were filed a year after the NRA’s research director acknowledged that the group’s opposition to gathering such data has severely hampered gun violence research in the U.S. report The Trace and the Los Angeles Times. With narrow exceptions, all California firearms transactions must go through licensed dealers, who relay to the state information on purchasers that includes name, address, and date of birth.
For over 30 years, the DOJ has shared this data with public health researchers, who have used it to try to untangle the connections between gun ownership and homicides, suicides, and other violence. They say this baseline information is key to understanding the risks and benefits of having a gun and, ultimately, to reducing injuries and deaths. “California is special,” said David Studdert, a gun researcher at Stanford Law School. “It’s not possible to do this kind of work elsewhere in the country. You need to be at the individual and household level to make the connection between the gun and a violent outcome. You can’t measure what you can’t see.” In 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law that authorized the state to share the data with accredited researchers. That prompted gun rights groups to file lawsuits — one in state court and one in federal court — to end the arrangement. The lawsuits maintain that the privacy rights of gun owners — already forced to divulge personal information to the state — are further violated when that information is shared with researchers. The suits also argue that the practice increases the risk of gun owners’ identities becoming public.