California ammo buyers are making a run on gun shops ahead of a new state law, which on July 1 will require buyers of bullets to show identification and undergo a background check to screen out felons and people with illegal firearms.
In a state with the toughest gun laws in the nation, Gov. Gavin Newsom and some other leaders see restricting ammunition sales as a necessary next step in reducing gun tragedies.
Newsom included restrictions on bullets in Proposition 63, his statewide initiative that was approved by voters in 2016 and that helped raise his profile for his run for governor.
“From San Bernardino to Ventura to Poway, too many Californians have already died from gun violence,” Newsom said last week. “I championed Prop. 63 because it is beyond time that we take common sense actions such as these to keep deadly ammo out of the wrong hands and protect our communities.”
The new law closes a loophole in existing rules aimed at reducing illegal weapons, supporters say, while some gun owners say it goes too far in infringing on the rights of law-abiding citizens.
Kim Rhode, an Olympic gold medalist shooter from El Monte, said she uses thousands of rounds each week to keep up her skill with daily practice. The law approved in 2016 not only creates more red tape for purchasers but also requires them to buy ammo face-to-face from a licensed dealer, hampering orders by the internet.
“These regulations essentially prevent me from being able to stay qualified and not only hurt my skill, but jeopardize the United States’ representation at the Olympic Games,” she said.
Rhode is a plaintiff in a lawsuit backed by the National Rifle Assn. that is pressing the courts to block the requirement on grounds it is unconstitutional, although the next court hearing is months away.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Justice is scrambling to develop its procedures for the screening process, with the possibility that the new system will not be finalized before the start of the month.
Even with a possible delay, gun owners have been stockpiling ammunition. OC Guns store owner Scott Bodkin said sales of ammunition have doubled at his Lake Forest store in recent weeks.
“People are gearing up for it,” he said of the new law. “They are buying a lot. They don’t like it. It’s just another typical California deterrent to make things tougher for gun owners.”
The Sacramento-area firm Ammo Depot has leased a freeway billboard warning of the new law and urging “Get your ammo now!”
Mike Hein of Ade’s Gun Shop in Orange said ammunition sales in recent months have jumped by more than 10%, including an increase of customers making bulk buys of as many as 1,000 rounds.
“People are starting to stock up. We stocked up on ammunition,” he said. “Most people know about the deadline. They are running scared. They are pissed off.”
He said there is also confusion about what the new law will require and added that the Justice Department has not provided clarity. An agency representative refused to comment on the new law and say when it will be enforced.
The ammo law was one of a half-dozen bills approved in 2016 amid public outrage over a raft of mass shootings, including the 2015 terror attack in San Bernardino that left 14 people dead at a holiday party and an attack months earlier at an Orlando, Fla., nightclub that killed 49 people.
Newsom’s initiative called for ammo buyers to undergo background checks and get a four-year permit from the California Department of Justice to purchase bullets.
The Legislature approved a bill that preempted parts of Newsom’s initiative to create a less complicated screening process that would provide immediate clearance for each purchase for those buying ammo, doing away with the four-year permit.
To give the state time to set up a system for instant background checks, the law’s effective date was delayed until July 1, 2019.
The law taking effect next month requires those buying ammunition to show a driver’s license or other photo identification, and for the licensed seller to collect the buyer’s name, date of birth and current address.
The seller then will make an instant check by computer to make sure the buyer is not listed on a Department of Justice database called the Prohibited Armed Persons File, which includes people who have been disqualified from possessing firearms because of criminal convictions or severe mental illness.
Buyers will be charged a $1 fee for the background check and state officials expect 13 million checks the first year.
State officials say California’s database includes 4.5 million people who possess firearms, but fewer than two-thirds of those people are active firearms users.
Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts and New Jersey have enacted similar laws, but those states require buyers to first pass a background check and obtain a license in order to purchase ammunition, according to Hannah Shearer, litigation director for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
New York is developing a system like California’s, said Shearer, whose gun-control group was formed by former Rep. Gabby Giffords, severely wounded in a mass shooting in 2011.
Before Proposition 63, it was easier to buy ammunition than cold medicine and cigarettes, Shearer said.
“Unsurprisingly, mass shooters have assembled arsenals by ordering ammunition online, and each year California law enforcement officers have uncovered hundreds of thousands of rounds of illegal ammunition while investigating the illegal possession of firearms,” she added.
Similar background checks implemented in Sacramento for more than a decade have allowed police detectives to track down and seize illegal guns from those trying to buy ammunition, according to Amanda Wilcox, the policy chair for Brady California, a gun control group that supports the new state law.
“That’s a big investigative tool,” said Wilcox, who suffered the death of a daughter to gun violence. “It’s really a way to get a handle on the problem of illegal guns.”
Los Angeles has also had success with background checks of ammunition buyers.
“People prohibited from buying guns — felons, domestic abusers and people with serious mental illness — shouldn’t be able to purchase ammunition, either,” said Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer, who was on the City Council when he proposed background checks in the 1990s and supports the new state law.
Wilcox said the law is needed to plug a big loophole.
“Although it is against existing law to sell ammunition to people prohibited from owning firearms there was no way to enforce it. People could sell ammo out of the trunk of the car,” she said.
Aaron Dunst of A1 Shooting Sports in El Monte said people are increasingly interested in his classes on how to make their own ammunition, which would avoid the background-check law.
Dunst said the law will not solve the problem of gun crime. “It’s going to generate a black market for ammunition overnight,” he said.
A lawsuit was filed in April 2018 by Rhode and the California Rifle & Pistol Assn., the state affiliate of the NRA, which supports the litigation.
The lawsuit, which is next scheduled for a hearing Nov. 15, argues that the ammunition law violates the 2nd Amendment right to buy ammunition for self-defense and “will ban millions of constitutionally protected ammunition transfers and heavily burden countless millions more.”
The NRA said in a statement that the lawsuit is just part of a bigger fight against California’s efforts to limit gun owners liberties.
“California’s history of stepping on the rights of its citizens is egregious, and helping with this lawsuit is one of many steps the NRA is taking to stand and fight for law-abiding gun owners,” said Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action.
How the law is implemented in the coming weeks “could determine our next steps in the litigation,” said Sean Brady, an attorney for the California Rifle and Pistol Assn.
Shearer predicted the legal challenge will fail.
“The 2nd Amendment doesn’t protect a right not to undergo a background check,” she said. “Under every reasonable interpretation of the Constitution, the 2nd Amendment allows states to enforce criminal laws by ensuring that everyone buying guns and ammunition has a clean record.”