Gun group wants judge to block ammunition background checks

DON THOMPSON
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California Ammo Background Checks

FILE - In this Tuesday June 11, 2019 file photo Chris Puehse, owner of Foothill Ammo, displays .45 caliber ammunition for sale at his store in Shingle Springs, Calif. The California Rifle & Pistol Association on Monday, July 22, 2019, asked San Diego-based U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez to block a new law requiring background checks on ammunition buyers and related restrictions on ammo sales. Voters approved tightening California's already strict firearms laws in 2016, but the restrictions took effect July 1. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A California affiliate of the National Rifle Association has asked a U.S. judge to block a new law requiring background checks for anyone buying ammunition.

The California Rifle & Pistol Association asked San Diego-based U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez to halt the checks and related restrictions on ammunition sales.

Voters approved tightening California's already strict firearms laws in 2016. The restrictions took effect July 1.

The gun owners' association challenged the ammunition background checks in a lawsuit filed last year and on Monday asked for an injunction, alleging it violates the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

The lawsuit has been joined by out-of-state ammunition sellers and California residents, including Kim Rhode, who has won six Olympic shooting medals and is trying to become the only person to win seven medals at seven consecutive Games.

"The scheme purports to funnel everyone seeking to exercise their Second Amendment right to acquire ammunition into a single, controlled source, an in-state licensed vendor, for the purpose of confirming purchasers' legal eligibility to possess ammunition and to keep track of all purchases," lawyer Sean Brady wrote. "While making sure dangerous people do not obtain weapons is a laudable goal for government, California's scheme goes too far and must be enjoined."

The motion raised concerns about identification requirements and high rates of denials among ammunition buyers undergoing the new background checks. Moreover, the system blocks out-of-state ammunition vendors from the California market, the motion argues.

The judge is expected to decide in early August whether to order a halt, though any such decision is almost certain to be appealed.

Benitez in October rejected the state's attempt to throw out the lawsuit. He allowed opponents to proceed on arguments that the ammunition restrictions impede interstate commerce and are pre-empted by federal law.

The measure "criminalizes all of those (ammunition) transactions with merchants conducting business in other states," he wrote in a preliminary ruling that the restriction "significantly burdens interstate commerce."

He also preliminarily supported the argument that the new state law conflicts with a federal law allowing gun owners to bring their firearms and ammunition through California.

The California law "criminalizes bringing ammunition into the state that was purchased or obtained outside the state," he wrote.

Benitez earlier this year struck down California's nearly two-decade-old ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines. That triggered a week-long buying frenzy before he stopped sales while the state appeals his ruling.

The impending ammunition background checks sparked a surge in sales as firearm owners sought to beat new requirements, including that dealers report the brand, type and amount of ammunition to the state Department of Justice.

Gun owners who already are in the state's background check database would pay a $1 fee each time they buy ammunition, while others can buy longer-term licenses if they do not have certain criminal convictions or mental health commitments.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has criticized Benitez's lifting of the state's ban on magazines holding more than 10 bullets, saying he is confident it will be reinstated by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Attorneys with San Francisco-based Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence anticipated that Benitez is likely to block the ammunition restrictions, but the law would eventually be upheld on appeal.

"Unfortunately this may be the one judge in the country" willing to rule that "people should be able to buy unlimited quantities of ammunition without background checks," staff attorney Ari Freilich, who directs the organization's California legislative affairs, said prior to the filing.

Gun owner groups have been pinning their hopes on a more conservative U.S. Supreme Court. But the center's litigation director, Hannah Shearer, said there are unlikely to be the kind of conflicting lower court opinions that would prompt the justices to weigh in.

She said courts have upheld ammunition licensing laws in other states and she expects the 9th Circuit would do likewise.