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.
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
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.