Buying a gun is pretty tough in California. It will take you 10 days to go through the background check process. More than 110 criminal or mental health conditions can make you a “prohibited person” who’s not allowed to buy guns. Handgun purchases are limited to one a month.

(Scott Olson/Getty Images)
(Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Buying ammunition, on the other hand, is a different story. No checks, no licenses, no nothing.

Unless, that is, you’re buying bullets in Sacramento. California’s capital has collected information about bullet purchasers and cross-checked that data against a list of people barred from owning firearms since 2008.

Democrats in the state Senate have made tighter gun control a main priority this year. A big part of that plan is making people go through background checks before they buy bullets. While Sacramento’s system is a bit different from the setup SB 53 would create, the capital city’s ammunition registry provides a window into how the Democrats’ plan would work.

To see how Sacramento’s system works, I recently bought some ammo at a store called Broadway Bait Rod & Gun.  When I asked for a 100-round box of .22-caliber bullets, salesman Yee Vang pulled out a maroon binder and flipped to a blank form. He jotted down my name, birthday, driver’s license number and other information. “Whatever’s on your ID, I write that down,” Vang said.

After that, I pressed my thumb into an ink pad and left a print on the document. At the end of each business day, the store types the information into a computer and forwards it to the Sacramento Police Department.

“This was a way to basically see who’s buying the ammo,” said Sacramento City Councilman Kevin McCarty, who authored the 2007 ordinance creating the registry. “But also, (if) we found out that prohibited people were buying the ammo, then we can go and get a search warrant, work with the local judicial system, and go and talk to those people, find out why they’re buying ammunition, if they’re really a prohibited person.”

Between 2008 and 2012, Sacramento police flagged nearly 400 ammunition purchasers who were barred by state or federal laws from owning guns. The information led to more than 300 arrests, and the seizure of more than 200 illegal firearms.

Sacramento isn’t the only city that keeps tabs on ammunition. But other cities, like Los Angeles, aren’t as proactive. L.A.’s records aren’t digitized, so police have to drive to gun stores to pick up the sales logs. Detective Richard Tompkins said the LAPD only checks out ammunition buyers on a spot-check basis.  “We do it randomly, when we have time, when we have the opportunity or when we’re a little bit slow,” he said. “We’ll pick up ammo logs. And we’ll start running them from Page One through.”

The city doesn’t keep stats on how many arrests are directly tied to its ammunition records, but a federal report found between 2 and 3 percent of bullets being purchased in Los Angeles are going to people who shouldn’t own them.

A Statewide System

Boxes of 9mm and .223 rifle ammuntion sit on the counter at Sportsmans Arms on April 2, 2013 in Petaluma, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Now Senate Democrats are trying to create a statewide system to keep tabs on who is buying bullets. “We have pretty restrictive gun laws in California. The most progressive in the nation,” Los Angeles Democrat Kevin de León, who’s sponsoring the bill, said before the measure passed the Senate in late May. “But we do not know who’s buying and who’s selling ammunition in California. And through my perspective, it’s the fuel that feeds the violence in our state and our communities.”

The bill’s details have changed several times, but the latest plan works like this: People would apply for an ammunition-purchasing license. After they pay an estimated $50 fee and go through a background check, their name would be added to a list of approved bullet buyers. When someone tries to buy ammunition at a store, the clerk would enter their information into a database. If the name comes up in the system of approved purchasers, the sale goes forward. If not, no bullets.

‘You Can Go Right Across The River’

For the most part, gun rights advocates have learned to live with California’s tough gun control laws. But many are pushing back on the ammunition registry. They say the system treats people like criminals when they’re buying something that’s legal.

Republican state Sen. Stephen Knight raised a practical concern during the Senate’s debate on the bill: that people will just buy their bullets in other states, once all the strict regulation kicks in. “I’m all for Las Vegas making more money,” he said. “Because I’m sure the legislators in Nevada are enjoying this bill quite a bit.”

In fact, the city of Sacramento has faced this exact problem. All those leads the gun registry initially produced have shriveled away. While police were seizing more than 70 guns a year at first, they tracked down only about 15 illegal firearms in 2012. McCarty, on the City Council, said people barred from owning guns “figure this stuff out, too, and maybe they’re realizing that other jurisdictions who are neighboring cities don’t have such a law.”

But not everyone has caught on. Yee Vang at Sacramento’s Broadway Bait Rod & Gun said police show up at the store about every two months, looking for additional information about a customer who shouldn’t have purchased ammunition. The visit typically happens within 48 hours of the sale.

“It’s stupid how guys are felons and just come and hand me their ID and pay me 20 bucks for a box of shells,” he said. “The thing that (gets) me is you can go right across the river and buy ammo with none of this. It’s crazy.”

De León and the other Senate Democrats pushing California’s latest gun control package are hoping to eliminate that option later this year.


California Considers Creating Ammunition Registry 9 July,2013Scott Detrow

  • microlith

    Because of course it’s completely impossible to make ones own bullets, right? There couldn’t possibly be an interest in hand loading rounds to get around things like this, could there?

  • Trevor

    Nazi police state USA.

    This is a violation of the fourth amendment of the constitution. This is an unlawful search of all sacramento ammunition purchasers.

  • GunFarce

    We are told we can’t blame ALL Police Officers for the acts of a few bad apples
    We are told the we can’t blame ALL Muslims for the acts of a few mad men.
    But, we are told ALL firearms owners must be blamed for the acts of a few mad men.
    Why is that? Couldn’t be bureaucratic, paranoid discrimination, could it?
    Nahh that would be too obvious

  • David Fredrickson Jr.

    So they have failed to kill the 2nd amendment so now they are attacking the ammunition? Wake up people the Nazis have landed in CA.
    Oh and BTW the dumbasses gave them a supermajority in the last election they can make any laws they want w/o oposition from the people who still respect the constitution.

  • liberallogicduh

    California needs jobs, not gun control. But these idiots in office don’t have a clue on ho to create businesses after running them all out of the state with crazy regulations. Well, at least they are creating jobs in the Black Market for guns and now ammo. Soon it will easier than ever to get 10k rounds and a machine gun thanks to these morons. Of course that’s just for criminals though, law abiding citizens just need to cower in the closet and call 911 and pray that the cops don’t take the usual 30 min to get there. No idea of what they are really doing and too stupid t look at Chicago to see the writing on the wall.

  • GuardAmerian

    This registry exists in San Francisco, too. But not to worry: the tolerant Left assures law-abiding citizens they double-pinky promise never to access this database.

    San Francisco: A slum with a view.

  • John Fah-q Smith

    1984+. You can take Yee out of China, but you can’t remove the Communist-roots.

  • bswp

    Please, in the interest of accurate reporting, stop calling out “bullets” and use the correct terms: cartridges, ammunition. Bullets are the projectiles that fly out of the firearms, propelled by gunpowder in the casing of the cartridge.

    Second, there is simply no evidence that requiring law-abiding citizens to register to purchase ammunition reduces crime. None whatsoever.

  • AD_Rtr_OS

    So, they’re keeping track of people who buy “bullets” – but without the other three components of a cartridge, what good are the bullets?

  • Azpod

    Buying bullets is still legal in Arizona. No background check, credit check, fingerprinting, anal exam or signing away your first born child required!



Scott Detrow

Sacramento bureau chief Scott Detrow covers state government, politics and policy for KQED News and its statewide news program, The California Report.

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