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US judge blocks background checks that denied ammo to law-abiding gun owners in California

Store managers show a customer ammo at the Get Loaded gun store on June 30, 2016, in Grand Terrace, Calif. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

A federal judge has blocked California’s ammunition background check program, which had prevented nearly one in five law-abiding gun owners from purchasing ammunition because of database glitches and other record-keeping problems.

In a 120-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Roger T. Benitez said the state’s program has been used to “systematically prohibit or deter an untold number of law-abiding California citizen-residents from undergoing the required background checks.”

“The experiment has been tried. The casualties have been counted. California’s new ammunition background check law misfires and the Second Amendment rights of California citizens have been gravely injured,” Benitez, of the Southern District of California in San Diego, wrote in an opinion posted Wednesday.

Benitez’s injunction deals a blow to one of the nation’s first attempts at requiring background checks for ammunition buyers. Benitez was the same judge who blocked California’s ban on high-capacity magazines a year ago.

Under legislation signed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in 2016, Californians buying ammunition after July were required to pass the in-store background check. In addition, California voters also approved Proposition 63 in 2016, which included a separate ammunition measure.

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Under the system, ammo vendors are required to run a buyer’s name through a U.S. Department of Justice database to see if they have legally purchased a gun in recent years. But the system that emerged last year has been plagued with problems from the start.

A Sacramento Bee investigation in December found that of the 345,547 ammunition background checks performed, the system kicked back 62,000 ammunition purchases because the buyer’s personal information hadn’t been entered into the state’s gun registration system.

Often, the information on a person’s identification card 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.

Some ammunition buyers told The Bee that the system was so glitchy that they ended up having to buy a new gun to get ammunition for the guns they already owned. Active duty and retired law enforcement officers told The Bee that the system also blocked them from buying ammunition.

Benitez said in his ruling Wednesday that 188 gun purchases were stopped because the buyer was a “prohibited person” who can’t legally possess ammunition. But in the seven months since implementation, the system rejected purchasers who are not “prohibited persons” 16.4% of the time, Benitez said.

“The state objective is to make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for its law-abiding citizens to purchase protected ammunition, then this law appears to be well-drafted,” Benitez said.

Benitez said if the state really wanted to keep ammunition away from people who were prohibited from buying it, the state could create a database of prohibited persons, give it to gun stores and then allow them to cross-check it with their driver’s licenses.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s press office said the state’s lawyers were still reviewing the decision late Thursday and had no immediate comment.

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.

“This is a devastating blow to the anti-gun-owner advocates who falsely pushed Prop. 63 in the name of safety. In truth, red tape and the state’s disastrous database errors made it impossible for hundreds of thousands of law-abiding Californians to purchase ammunition for sport or self-defense.” Chuck Michel, president of the California Rifle & Pistol Association, said in a written statement.

Michel noted the state is likely to appeal.

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© 2020 The Sacramento Bee

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.