SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California residents don’t have to pay for and pass a background check every time they buy bullets, a federal judge has ruled.
The Tuesday ruling by U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez took effect immediately. California Attorney General Rob Bonta asked Benitez on Wednesday to delay the ruling to give him time to appeal the decision. It’s unclear if Benitez will grant that request.
Many states, including California, make people pass a background check before they can buy a gun. California goes a step further by requiring a background check, which cost either $1 or $19 depending on eligibility, every time people buy bullets. A few other states also require background checks for buying ammunition, but most let people buy a license that is good for a few years.
California’s law is meant to help police find people who have guns illegally — like convicted felons, people with mental illnesses and those with some domestic violence convictions. Sometimes they order kits online and assemble guns in their home. The guns don’t have serial numbers and are difficult for law enforcement to track, but the people who own them show up in background checks when they try to buy bullets.
Benitez said California’s law violates the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because if people can’t buy bullets, they can’t use their guns for self-defense. He criticized the state’s automated background check system, which he said rejected about 11% of applicants, or 58,087 requests, in the first half of 2023.
“How many of the 58,087 needed ammunition to defend themselves against an impending criminal threat and how many were simply preparing for a sporting event, we will never know,” Benitez wrote. “What is known is that in almost all cases, the 322 individuals that are rejected each day are being denied permission to freely exercise their Second Amendment right — a right which our Founders instructed shall not be infringed.”
Bonta had argued advances in technology — including buying ghost guns, firearms without serial numbers, on the internet — require a new approach to enforcing gun laws. Benitez rejected the argument, citing a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that set a new standard for interpreting gun laws. The decision says gun laws must be consistent with the nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation. Benitez ruled there is no history of background checks for ammunition purchases.
“States could have addressed the problem of dangerous armed citizens in this way, but they did not,” Benitez wrote. “When states addressed the concern at all, they addressed it by later seizing firearms from the individual rather than preventing ahead of time the acquisition of ammunition by all individuals.”
Bonta said Benitez’s ruling puts public safety at risk.
“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 move quickly to correct this dangerous mistake.”
Chuck Michel, president and general counsel of the California Rifle & Pistol Association, said California’s requirement for a background check on all ammunition purchases “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,” he said.
California has some of the nation’s toughest gun laws. Many of them are being challenged in court in light of the new standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Benitez has already struck down two other California gun laws — one that banned detachable magazines that have more than 10 bullets and another that banned the sale of assault-style weapons. Those decisions have been appealed. Other laws being challenged include rules requiring gun stores to have digital surveillance systems and restricting the sale of new handguns.