Judge rules California background check, anti-importation rules for ammo unconstitutional

A customer at a gun store counter
A California law requiring background checks for ammunition purchases was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

A California law requiring people to submit to a background check every time they want to purchase ammunition is unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled in a decision made public Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Roger T. Benitez found state laws prohibiting California buyers from purchasing and importing ammunition from out-of-state sellers likewise violate federal law.

Benitez barred the state from enforcing the laws moving forward and denied a request from California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta’s office to put his decision on hold while the state appeals to a higher court.


In an era of fierce polarization, Judge Roger T. Benitez seems a perfect fit, an object of rage and adoration. His likeness as ‘St. Benitez’ — with robes and a halo, sometimes holding an AR-15 or a box of bullets — is plastered on T-shirts, prayer candles and even gun magazines.

Aug. 8, 2021

Benitez — who in recent years has issued a long line of rulings against California gun control measures — based his decision in part on the 2022 U.S. Supreme Court decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Assn. vs. Bruen. That decision said gun laws that aren’t deeply rooted in American history, or analogous to some historical law, are generally unconstitutional.

“A sweeping background check requirement imposed every time a citizen needs to buy ammunition is an outlier that our ancestors would have never accepted for a citizen,” Benitez wrote.

Benitez also criticized the state for trying to justify its modern ammunition restrictions under Bruen by citing 48 historical laws that restricted enslaved people and other racial minorities from possessing ammunition.

“These fifty laws identified by the Attorney General constitute a long, embarrassing, disgusting, insidious, reprehensible list of examples of government tyranny towards our own people,” Benitez wrote.

Attorneys for the state had not said they supported those racist laws — in fact, they disavowed them — but said they nonetheless provided a historical precedent for government restrictions on ammunition, as required under Bruen.

Thanks to the Supreme Court, cases challenging California’s gun laws have been focused more on distant history than the weapons’ modern threat.

March 7, 2023

Bonta said in a statement Wednesday that his office is appealing Benitez’s decision to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and seeking a ruling from that court that would halt Benitez’s decision from taking effect during the appeal.


Bonta said the Supreme Court “was clear that Bruen did not create a regulatory straitjacket for states,” and Benitez got the ruling wrong.

“These laws were put in place as a safeguard and a way of protecting the people of California — and they work,” Bonta said. “We will continue to fight for our authority to keep Californians safe.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom, in his own statement, called Benitez a “fanatic judge” — and cited a previous ruling in which Benitez overturned the state’s ban on assault-style weapons in part by comparing them to knives. That decision is also under appeal.

“Judge Benitez has yet again put his personal politics and fealty to the gun lobby over the Constitution and common sense,” Newsom said. “Guns — with bullets — are the number one killer of children in America. California will fight this extremist, illogical, and incoherent ruling as we defend our life-saving measures that are proven to keep our communities safe.”

Chuck Michel, an attorney for the plaintiffs who sued to overturn the laws, praised Benitez’s ruling.

“This law, like most of California’s gun control laws, has not made anyone safer. But it has made it much more difficult and expensive for law-abiding gun owners to exercise their Second Amendment right to defend themselves and their family,” Michel said in a statement. “It has blocked many eligible people from getting the ammunition they need — which is the true political intent behind most of these laws.”


California voters first approved a measure that required people to obtain a permit to purchase ammunition every four years — Proposition 63 — in 2016. The measure was put forward and championed by then-Lt. Gov. Newsom.

Following a year marked by a series of mass shootings, voters on Tuesday approved Proposition 63, which toughens California’s already strict gun control laws.

Nov. 9, 2016

The California Legislature amended the measure, under Senate Bill 1235, to require automated background checks at every ammunition purchase. That rule took effect in 2019.

Benitez specified his decision did not speak to the voter-approved, four-year permit scheme, only the Legislature’s requirement that background checks be run — and paid for by the customer — at the time of every purchase.

“Perhaps the simpler, 4-year and $50 ammunition purchase permit approved by the voters in Proposition 63, would have fared better,” he wrote.

Benitez separately reiterated an earlier finding in the case that the state’s provisions against Californians purchasing and importing ammunition from other states violated federal commerce law by favoring businesses within California’s borders over their out-of-state competitors.

Benitez has previously overturned California’s ban on assault-style weapons and its ban on large-capacity ammunition magazines — decisions the state is also fighting.


Those decisions and his ruling Wednesday are part of a wave of court findings overturning gun control measures across the country in the wake of the Bruen decision.