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California gun owners brace for ammo shortages and price hikes

Gun dealer describes confusion, complexity in California’s new gun laws

California lawmakers and voters passed a slew of new gun and ammunition laws in 2016 that will significantly affect the state’s more than 6 million firearms owners. Gun dealers say the overlapping laws have created confusion.
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California lawmakers and voters passed a slew of new gun and ammunition laws in 2016 that will significantly affect the state’s more than 6 million firearms owners. Gun dealers say the overlapping laws have created confusion.

Matt Ball isn’t the type of gun enthusiast who hoards ammunition – at least not normally.

Ball, a 39-year-old banker from Roseville, is a casual shooter who spends a few days a year at the target range. Typically, when he’s running low on ammo, he swings by a local sporting-goods store and buys what he needs, or he orders online.

But like thousands of other hunters and target shooters in California, Ball has been stocking up in advance of a host of new state gun laws, set to take effect this year and next, that include ammunition regulations that are among the most stringent in the nation.

“I’ve definitely been picking up a little more than I typically would,” Ball said. “I do worry about – not so much about supply but prices. The fact California has these extra rules in place, what’s that going to be like?”

California lawmakers and voters passed a slew of gun control laws in 2016 that impose significant new restrictions on the state’s more than 6 million firearms owners. The new regulations, which take effect in stages over the next two years, affect a broad range of practices, from where you buy your ammunition to how you store your guns and who can borrow them.

Several of the new laws specifically target ammunition purchases. Among the changes coming as of January 2018: Californians who want to buy ammunition online or through catalogs will have to ship their purchases through a licensed dealer. And for the first time, state residents will have to undergo a background check when buying ammunition.

Although the restrictions on ammunition purchases don’t take effect for another year, retailers say gun owners have been buying more ammo amid uncertainty and confusion over the new laws.

“We’re selling a lot more ammunition right now,” said Patrick Jones, owner of Jones’ Fort gun store in Redding. “And we will continue to do so up until the time the registration kicks in.”

It’s not unusual to see spikes in gun and ammunition sales almost any time a new gun law is proposed – let alone passed – at the state or federal level. But law enforcement officials, retailers and other experts on firearms policy say, in the case of California’s new regulations, the fears that gun enthusiasts have about rising prices and limited availability of some types of ammunition likely are well-founded.

A major concern is that the new regulations, intended to keep ammunition out of the hands of felons and other dangerous people, will particularly disrupt life for rural hunters and shooters who have limited local options for shopping.

“There are some definite things in there that concern me – the difficulty that it’s going to create for legitimate sportsmen and sportswomen … completely legal people trying to buy ammo to try to do a legal thing,” said David Bess, chief of enforcement at the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The game wardens Bess oversees enforce state hunting and gun laws and are among the law enforcement officers most likely to encounter hunters and target shooters in the field.

Under the existing rules, anyone age 18 or older (21 or older for handguns) can buy ammunition without a background check, and sellers need no special training or license. The new laws mandate that by Jan. 1, 2018, all ammunition in California must be purchased in person through a vendor licensed by the Department of Justice. Starting that date, online orders of ammunition also must be processed through one of these vendors.

With limited exceptions, people will be barred from giving away ammunition without going through a vendor, and people won’t be able to legally import ammunition purchased out of state, unless it’s shipped to a licensed California dealer. Violators can face misdemeanor charges.

Starting July 2019, another layer of oversight kicks in: Anyone buying ammunition from a vendor will be required to undergo background screening via a state system.

The idea behind the new system is to make it more difficult for felons and others who can’t pass a background check to get ammunition – with the hope that lives will be saved. “It just makes it a little bit harder for those people to have ammunition,” said Adam Winkler, a professor at UCLA School of Law who writes about Second Amendment issues.

But adding to the confusion for law-abiding gun owners, there are two conflicting background check requirements that the courts may need to sort out.

Under legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last summer, Californians buying ammunition would need to pass an in-store background check, which involves vendors running information through a Department of Justice database to see if they are prohibited from owning guns. The buyer would pay a fee of up to $1 with each transaction, an amount that can rise with inflation.

Proposition 63, the ballot initiative voters approved in November, sets out a different system. People interested in buying ammunition would have to purchase a four-year permit from the Department of Justice. The state could charge up to $50 for the ammo license. Retailers would be required to check with the department to ensure customers have a valid permit.

It’s not clear which of the provisions will win out. Typically, ballot measures override legislation, but the Legislature passed a bill prior to the November election that attempted to supersede Proposition 63’s licensing requirements.

A court is likely to decide which background check process becomes law, said Fredric Woocher, a Los Angeles attorney who served as special counsel to former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp.

“Courts have starkly been called on to make a make a lot of difficult decisions,” Woocher said. “And this one is probably not going to be that different.”

A spokesman for Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who pushed the ballot initiative, declined to comment.

Whichever system is implemented, experts say the new requirements are almost certainly going to cause ammunition prices to spike in California. Aside from government fees, vendors are expected to tack on additional charges to make up for the costs associated with the licensing requirement and background checks. Many also will charge a fee to process ammunition transactions from online or out of state.

Some gun owners are fearful that shortages could follow if major retailers, such as Walmart, opt to avoid the hassle and stop selling ammunition in California.

Something similar played out in 2003, when the giant retailer stopped selling firearms in California, citing problems complying with the state’s rigorous background check requirements. Walmart continued to sell ammunition at discounted prices in its sporting-goods aisle – often prompting competitors to lower their prices.

Walmart spokesman Charles Crowson said the company is reviewing the new ammunition laws and has not yet decided how it will respond.

In far-flung small towns, it’s not uncommon for hardware stores and small sporting-goods stores that don’t sell guns to sell ammunition. The worry is that some of those stores will decide they can’t afford to do that anymore. That could cause problems for rural hunters and gun owners, who would find themselves having to drive long distances to find a licensed vendor, said Bess, the game warden chief.

“It definitely makes it difficult for a guy or gal up, say, in the Susanville area, or Alturas, or someplace remote like that to get to a big-box store, and then especially if your big-box store is in Reno and you’ve got to cross the state line,” he said.

Under the new laws, buying ammo at a Reno big-box store also becomes more complicated. As of 2018, out-of-state ammunition purchases have to be shipped to an in-state vendor – meaning gun owners can’t just load up their pickup or ship a box directly to their home.

So will law enforcement officers be conducting border checks to catch out-of-state ammunition buyers? So far, no state agency has announced plans to start screening people at border checkpoints. Brenda Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Justice, declined to comment for this story.

More broadly, Bess said it’s also going to be difficult for his wardens to enforce in-state ammo purchase requirements in the field. The reason? There’s no easy way to track ammunition after it’s been purchased. Unlike a gun, which has a serial number, ammunition is almost untraceable.

Amid all the uncertainty, Bess said he understands why Californian gun owners are stocking up. He’s been doing it, too.

“I was just over at a place the other day, and I was in there with my boys,” he said. “I saw some (ammunition I needed), and I said, ‘Hey, grab as much of that stuff as they’ll allow us to buy.’ 

The Bee’s Phillip Reese contributed to this report.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow

Dates California gun laws take effect

Between state legislation and voter-approved ballot initiatives, 2016 saw passage of sweeping new gun regulations in California. Some of the new rules take effect in 2017. Others are staggered over the next two years. Here’s your guide to California’s new era of gun ownership.

Theft/loss reporting

When it becomes a crime to falsely report a firearm has been lost or stolen

Jan. 1

Start date for requirement that theft or loss of a firearm must be reported to law enforcement within five days

July 1

Lending firearms

When it becomes illegal, with limited exceptions, to loan guns to anyone outside of immediate family members

Jan. 1

Large-capacity magazine restrictions

When it becomes illegal, with limited exceptions, to possess magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds

July 1

Assault weapon restrictions

Start date for the new definition of “assault weapon”

Jan. 1

Deadline to register a newly designated assault weapon with the state

Dec. 31, 2017

Restrictions on home-built “ghost guns” and guns without serial numbers

Start date for requirement that you get state permission before manufacturing or assembling a firearm

July 1, 2018

Deadline to place a serial number on any unmarked firearm possessed after July 1, 2018

Dec. 31, 2018

Ammunition restrictions

Start date for requirement that ammunition sales or transfers be conducted through a licensed ammunition vendor

Jan. 1, 2018

When you no longer can import ammunition bought outside the state without first shipping it to a licensed vendor

Jan. 1, 2018

Start date for requirement that Californians undergo background checks to buy ammunition

July 1, 2019

Handgun storage law

Start date for requirement that handguns be stored in a locked container or locked trunk when left in an unattended vehicle

Jan. 1

Sources: Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Legislative Analyst’s Office, California legal codes.

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