Zachary Berg usually buys guns and ammunition with relative ease. After all, he’s a Sutter County sheriff’s deputy and needs them for his job. California’s stringent gun laws usually don’t apply to him.
But Berg couldn’t buy shotgun shells at his local hardware store in Yuba City prior to a duck hunting trip last month. He was rejected under California’s stringent ammunition background check program that took effect July 1, because his personal information didn’t match what state officials had in their database.
Berg was one of tens of thousands of Californians who have been turned away from buying ammunition at firearms and sporting goods stores, even though they appear to be lawfully able to do so, a Sacramento Bee review of state data shows. Between July 1 and November, nearly one in every five ammunition purchases was rejected by the California Department of Justice, the figures show.
Of the 345,547 ammunition background checks performed, only 101 stopped the buyer because he or she was a “prohibited person” who can’t legally possess ammunition, according to state Department of Justice data.
Yet another 62,000 ammunition purchases were rejected as well. Those people left empty-handed because their personal information hadn’t been entered into the state’s system, or the information on their identification cards didn’t match what officials had entered into the California gun registry database, which retail sellers must review when they do the ammunition background check.
“It’s a little ironic the fact I’m a deputy that I can’t buy ammunition,” Berg said. “But at the same time, anybody else who’s legally allowed to, they shouldn’t be denied based on address (errors). ... It’s just crazy.”
The rejection numbers are detailed in court documents Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office filed in U.S. District Court in San Diego in response to a pending lawsuit that’s seeking to overturn to the new gun laws. The suit was filed by the California Rifle & Pistol Association. The case’s lead plaintiff is Kim Rhode, an Olympic shooter and National Rifle Association board member.
Becerra’s office declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation. But in court filings, the agency said the state’s rejection rate declined from 19 percent in July to 15 percent in October, a downward trend the agency says will continue “as familiarity with the system among ammunition vendors and consumers increases.” Becerra’s office also noted that ammunition purchasers have had better luck on the second try. For instance, 44 percent of purchasers who had been rejected in July were able to buy ammunition by November.
But to gun-rights advocates, the mass denials are confirmation of their long-standing assertion that liberal gun-control laws disproportionately burden law-abiding gun owners who follow the rules, even as criminals continue to acquire guns and ammunition without jumping through the regulatory hoops.
“The restrictions are not going on criminals. It’s not targeting criminal misuses. It’s targeting otherwise law-abiding persons in the way that they can exercise their rights,” said Daniel Reid, the western regional director for the National Rifle Association. “You’re seeing a handful of denials for prohibited persons and all these other people are being denied for clerical errors or administrative type issues.”
The rejections appear to have occurred because of errors and omissions in the Department of Justice’s own gun-registration database.
Under the ammunition-background check law signed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in 2016, as of July 1, Californians buying ammunition are required to pass the in-store background check, which involves vendors running a buyer’s name through the Department of Justice database to see if they have legally purchased a gun in recent years. Purchasing a gun in California is a separate process that involves a background check and waiting period.
Beginning in 2014, Californians who’ve bought a shotgun or a rifle are in the database, and handgun owners have been in the system for even longer. If a gun owner has a weapon in the database, and their government-issued identification card matches the gun registry, an ammunition buyer pays the state a $1 fee for each ammo transaction, and then he or she walks out of the store with their ammo in a couple of minutes.
Those who don’t have a gun in the Department of Justice’s system are required to pay the state a $19 fee and undergo a more comprehensive background check, a process that can take days, or they can go online and register a firearm in the database.
About 18 percent of purchases were rejected in the standard $1 background check process, according to the Department of Justice.
The DOJ says in court filing more than 19,000 ammunition buyers weren’t in the database at all, so they were denied when they went to buy ammo. More than 22,000 were rejected because of address mismatches, many of them due to having moved since they last bought a gun. Nearly 8,000 people had names in the state’s gun registry that didn’t match their identification, according to the Department of Justice filing.
Christopher Lapinski, operations manager the Sacramento gun store Last Stand Readiness & Tactical, said he’s been forced to reject more ammunition sales than he’s been able to approve, most of them involving mismatches between the Department of Justice database and what the Department of Motor Vehicles put on a customer’s driver’s license. He said it’s been especially frustrating to deny sales to retired law enforcement officers and active-duty members of the military.
“You could be a Navy SEAL yesterday, but didn’t buy a gun in California, and now you can’t buy ammo,” he said.
Dan Logan, a 72-year-old retired California Highway Patrol officer and Vietnam veteran, said he attempted to register a shotgun this fall so that he could have his information in the Department of Justice system, yet he was still denied in October when he tried to buy a box of shotgun shells at his local Big 5 sporting goods store in Folsom.
To him, the experience was especially frustrating, given the gun-control laws voters passed in 2016 also prohibit him from traveling out of state to stock up on ammunition.
“If I go to Nevada and buy ammunition there, I can go to jail,” he said.
Gun-control activists react
Gun-control advocates say the issues ammunition buyers are having are merely minor inconveniences that will get sorted out as the database is updated.
Ari Freilich, an attorney with the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, likened it to a traveler having to go through security at an airport. He said the system is already working as intended. He pointed to the 101 people who were legally forbidden from possessing ammunition being prohibited from buying it. He argues an unknown number of other dangerous people likely didn’t make the attempt, knowing they’d be caught breaking the law.
“Any one of those people, they were committing a serious crime trying to acquire a product designed to take human life,” Freilich said. “And they were stopped from doing so in that moment.”
Gun-rights groups argue the new ammunition registration is being used as a de facto gun registration system, because gun owners who’ve never registered a weapon must now be entered into the system.
But Freilich argues it’s critical to have an up-to-date registry of California’s firearm owners so that law enforcement agencies can use it to remove guns from dangerous people.
Under the state’s “red flag” laws, Californians can petition a court to have police remove firearms from those threatening to harm themselves or others. The law was recently expanded to allow teachers, employers and coworkers to seek the temporary removal of firearms from the homes of people making threats.
“Because of this DOJ database, (it) allows law enforcement to know that that person has arms, to know what kind of arms they have and to know where they reside, so they can ensure that the people who have been subject to threats are safe and that guns are removed from that dangerous situation,” he said.
Kevin de León, the former Democratic state Senate leader who championed the background check legislation, said the issues ammunition buyers are experiencing are easily fixable and shouldn’t detract from the important work the background check system is doing to keep Californians safe.
“We can easily overcome this technical issue,” said de León, who’s currently running for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council. “To the NRA and others who don’t believe that we should keep our communities safe from gunfire, I would say stop the hyperbole over a technical issue that’s easily solvable and be part of the solution to reduce dramatically the numbers of needless killings that happen in our communities every single day.”
Few hunters in California
Hunting associations say the mass rejections were a one-two punch for California’s already shrinking ranks of hunters.
The July 1 deadline for background checks coincided with the state’s ban on lead hunting ammunition fully taking effect. Before the state’s primary hunting seasons began this fall, hunters swarmed stores looking for often hard-to-find non-toxic shotgun shells and rifle rounds.
When they could find the ammo they are legally required to use in the field, many hunters were unable to buy it.
Hunting groups argue the ammunition rejections and the lack of availability are reflected in a noticeable spike in year-over-year declines in hunting license sales.
This year, 10,631 fewer Californians bought hunting licenses than they did at this point the previous year, according to data from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. That’s about double the decline in license sales in 2018.
Hunter numbers have been dwindling across the country, and state wildlife agencies including California’s have been attempting to boost hunter recruitment to stave off a loss in hunting license revenue. There were 264,674 annual hunting licenses purchased through this point in 2013. So far this year, only 235,491 purchased licenses.
In California, around a quarter of the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s budget is paid through hunting and fishing license sales and taxes on their firearms and gear. The funds go to pay for state wildlife programs such as habitat restoration and refuges.
“Adding more regulation isn’t going to help get more people out in the field. It’s just going to be a disincentive for people to participate,” said Mark Hennelly, a vice president of the California Waterfowl Association, one the state’s most influential hunting lobbying groups. “Over the long term, this is going to have a significant impact on Californians’ ability to hunt and enjoy the outdoors. It’s really sad to see. “
Fiona Benjamin, 23, is one of the new hunters the state is actively trying to recruit, but she said she found herself blocked from purchasing ammunition this fall because she hadn’t registered a gun. Up to that point, she’d borrowed a friend’s shotgun when she was out in the field.
In order to get registered to buy ammo, Benjamin, a recent UC Davis graduate from Half Moon Bay, said she did what California lawmakers, who are wary of having more guns and ammunition in circulation, probably didn’t intend when they passed their gun legislation.
She bought a new shotgun, and she said she plans on stockpiling ammunition when she clears the Department of Justice’s system.
“I’m probably going to buy a whole case of the stuff I like to shoot to avoid problems in the future,” Benjamin said.