Should Ammunition Buyers Face Background Checks? California's Voters Will Decide

Oct 25, 2016
Originally published on October 25, 2016 2:38 pm

With gun control efforts stalled in Congress and in many statehouses, advocates are forging another path forward: They're going straight to the ballot box.

Voters in four states will weigh gun control initiatives Nov. 8 ballot: Maine, Nevada, Washington and California. In Nevada and Maine, voters are being asked whether to strengthen background check requirements for gun sales. Washington State voters already did that; now they're considering whether to allow a court to take guns away from potentially dangerous people.

California, with some of the toughest restrictions on gun buying and ownership in the nation, already has all of those laws on the books. Now, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to go ever further and bring bullets into the equation. Depending on whom you ask, it's a question of either common sense or constitutional rights: Should ammunition be treated like guns are, with background checks for buyers and limits on who can sell?

It's not the only question posed by Proposition 63, but it's the one that's received the most attention. Authored by Newsom, the initiative would also require gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms to law enforcement; set up a process for convicted felons to give up their guns; and fully ban magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds of bullets.

Will Other States Follow?

Newsom sees ammunition regulation as perhaps the measure's most consequential provision. He said other states will follow suit if California passes Proposition 63. Polls show strong support, but even if Prop. 63 failed, background checks on ammunition purchases are coming to California: Lawmakers in the state Legislature passed a similar law this summer.

"A gun needs a component — and that's the ammunition — to be deadly. And the reality is today anyone can buy ammunition anywhere," Newsom said.

Newsom says the ballot measure isn't about taking guns or ammunition away from people who follow the rules, but protecting the public from criminals.

Gun enthusiasts see Proposition 63 as an attack on their Second Amendment rights.

"Most of the provisions of this bill do not affect anyone who has been convicted of a crime. It does not affect terrorists; it does not affect potential mass shooters; it does not affect criminals. It only affects law-abiding citizens," said Craig DeLuz, spokesman for the Stop 63 campaign and a lobbyist for the Firearms Policy Coalition in Sacramento.

He contends that California has plenty of gun control laws on the books already.

"We are getting to the point where we are just piling on, and when you make complying with the law so onerous, then one of two things happen," he said. "One, I decide it's too onerous and expensive for me to comply with the law or I get to a point where I am just going to ignore the law ... and I decide that the defense of myself and my family is more important than following laws that go against the Constitution."

How Effective Would Ammunition Background Checks Be?

Gun control laws such as background checks work, said Julie Leftwich, legal director at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The nonprofit partnered with Newsom to write Proposition 63. It also helped push that law that instated a gun violence restraining order in California allowing police and family members to petition a court to take away someone's firearms.

"We have passed, as a state, over 50 strong gun safety laws (over the past 20 years) and our gun deaths have dropped by 56 percent, which is twice as much as other states," Leftwich said.

With California's strong laws around buying guns, DeLuz said there's no need for the ammunition background checks, which he warned could lead to racial profiling of certain gun users.

He said requiring gun owners to report when a firearm is lost or stolen will "make a victim of them once again," and could result in a previously law-abiding person being labeled a criminal. Supporters of the measure say it will help police crack down on gun traffickers.

Finally, he said the provision requiring felons to prove to a court that they have given up a gun before sentencing will burden probation departments that are already stretched thin. He noted that some law enforcement groups oppose Proposition 63, though their opposition mostly centers around the fact that the ballot measure doesn't exempt law enforcement officers from its requirements.

Buying in Bulk

He also said it would drive up the price of bullets for law-abiding citizens.

"A lot of times when people purchase ammunition they purchase it in bulk because it's cheaper — like toilet paper," DeLuz said.

Longtime recreational shooter James Cloud, who was practicing at Jackson Arms shooting range in South San Francisco recently, agreed. He said it's easy to go through thousands of rounds of bullets in a single afternoon and that buying them online is the cheapest option.

Gun stores and ranges "are going to charge way more, double or triple," he said. Cloud said it's already confusing trying to navigate the patchwork of state and local laws in California.

"It's nuts," he said. "It's out of control, because you know what it is? I think the laws are definitely not targeting criminals now, not at all. They get their guns out of state or they are going to go to Mexico. These laws are going to do nothing. It might make it worse. It's going to create a black market."

Newsom's Political Ambitions

DeLuz also accused Newsom of using the ballot measure to help raise money and his political profile in advance of the 2018 governor's race.

"He's taking an issue that specifically affects constitutional rights, that has to do with protecting people's safety, and he's using it as a political tool," he said.

Some of the issues Proposition 63 tackles were already broached by several laws signed by Gov. Jerry Brown this summer — including the bill by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin DeLeon, D-Los Angeles, which also set up a ammunition registration system.

But Newsom said Proposition 63 is still crucial to ensure Californians' safety because it is stronger than the laws passed in Sacramento and, if passed by voters, cannot be undone by lawmakers in the future.

How the NRA and other gun rights advocates respond remains to be seen. With four state measures this fall, the NRA has only poured significant resources into defeating the Nevada measure. Many observers think the group may be saving their money to challenge these laws in court.

Copyright 2016 KQED Public Media. To see more, visit KQED Public Media.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

With gun control efforts stalled in Congress and many state houses, some advocates are forging another path forward. They're going straight to voters. Four states have gun control initiatives on the November 8 ballot - Maine, Nevada, Washington and here in California. Polls show all of the proposals have strong support. Marisa Lagos of member station KQED in San Francisco has more.

MARISA LAGOS, BYLINE: In Nevada and Maine, voters are being asked whether to strengthen background check requirements for gun sales. Washington state voters already did that. Now they're considering whether to allow a court to take guns away from potentially dangerous people. California already has all of those laws on the books.

Now, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to make the state's already strict gun laws even tougher. Proposition 63 would require background checks for buyers and sellers of ammunition, and allow law enforcement to track who is purchasing which types of bullets.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GAVIN NEWSOM: The most important folks we're trying to bring in under the ammunition background check are people that quote, unquote, "don't own a gun," but are legally buying ammunition.

LAGOS: Newsom says Prop 63 will let the state crack down on the most dangerous gun users who account for the most deaths - those with illegal firearms. Gun rights supporters say the ballot measure won't stop criminals. Craig DeLuz is a lobbyist for the Firearms Policy Coalition in Sacramento.

CRAIG DELUZ: Most of the provisions in this bill do not affect anyone who's been convicted of a crime. It does not affect terrorists. It does not affect potential mass shooters. It does not affect criminals. It only affects law-abiding citizens.

LAGOS: But Julie Leftwich of the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence says the most important part of Prop 63 is a provision that would require someone convicted of a felony to prove to a court before their sentence that they no longer have a gun, either by handing it in to law enforcement or selling it to a licensed buyer like a gun store.

JULIE LEFTWICH: We currently have no clear, verifiable process to get guns out of the hands of newly-convicted felons.

LAGOS: Currently in California, there are an estimated 34,000 guns in the hands of people who became felons after buying the guns. Prop 63 also requires people to report to police when a gun is lost or stolen, something that Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed. Gun enthusiasts say the ammunition provision of the ballot measure will just drive up prices for those abiding by the law.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

LAGOS: At the Jackson Arms shooting range in south San Francisco, longtime recreational shooter James Cloud has finished target practice.

JAMES CLOUD: You could go through easily a thousand rounds in one day - easily. Normally you would buy it online because the stores are too expensive.

LAGOS: The thing is, ammunition regulations are coming to California with or without Prop 63. Lawmakers here passed a similar law this summer, after Newsom had already submitted the ballot measure. It was an unusual move, but supporters of the ballot measure think Democrats in the legislature were moved to act by Prop 63.

In general, voters have been far more willing than state or federal lawmakers to buck the NRA and support tighter gun laws. Newsom says ballot measures are important because they're harder to undo than laws passed in the state house.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEWSOM: All these things can be changed and I fear will be changed because of the gun lobby that's been very persuasive, even with Democrats.

LAGOS: The powerful NRA has largely sat out the state fights this time around, only dumping resources against the Nevada measure. But gun supporters may be eyeing another front altogether. Many observers wonder if the group is waiting to challenge the laws in court. For NPR News, I'm Marisa Lagos in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.