California’s attempts to discourage gun ownership hit a bump Thursday. U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez granted a preliminary injunction that stopped the state from enforcing its background checks on ammunition purchases. The initiative, which was spearheaded by Gavin Newsom when he was the lieutenant governor, passed in 2016 with 63 percent of the vote.
The background checks have failed miserably, succeeding only in preventing law-abiding citizens from buying ammunition. Between July 2019 and January 2020, 101,047 non-prohibited Californians were prevented from buying bullets. By contrast, just 188 prohibited people were denied. That means that for every prohibited person whose purchase was rejected, 537 law-abiding citizens were denied.
This high ratio is not too surprising, since few criminals are dumb enough to try to go through a background check. As Judge Benitez noted, “Criminals, tyrants, and terrorists don’t do background checks.” Instead, many of these criminals buy their guns and ammunition from drug dealers. We’ve had no more success in stopping the illegal gun trade than in stopping the illegal drug trade.
Denials typically result from such things as the buyer’s current address differing from the address when they last bought a gun. Even law-enforcement officers, such as Sutter County deputy sheriff Zachary Berg, are being denied because their personal information doesn’t match the state database records.
The small number of “prohibited” people who have been stopped is undoubtedly even smaller than the 188 cases the state claims. California provides no evidence that any of these “prohibited” individuals were actually convicted for breaking the law by trying to buy this ammunition. In the federal background check system for gun purchases, only about one out of every 3,000 denials actually leads to a conviction. That’s because the vast majority of prohibited purchases were the result of mistaken identification. The government confused the identities of law-abiding citizens with those who were prohibited.
The costs of the checks and the legal hassles of getting around them are primarily harming poorer Californians. These are the very people who are the most likely victims of violent crime and who stand to benefit the most from being able to protect themselves.
This judgment mirrors the views of academic researchers. A 2019 survey of 120 criminologists, economists, and public-health researchers who had published peer-reviewed, empirical research on firearms revealed a high degree of skepticism that background checks on either ammunition or guns would reduce crime. Respondents were asked to rate the effectiveness of each policy on a scale of 1 to 10. A rating of “1” indicated not effective at all, and “10” indicated extreme effectiveness. For ammunition background checks, the survey result was a mere 3.48.
By contrast, reducing the cost of background checks and licensing fees earned a significantly higher effectiveness score of 5.1.
California hasn’t provided the court with any evidence that these types of background checks stop criminals from getting ammunition.
California’s neighbor Mexico has gone much further than even California in its restrictions, and the crime rates don’t bear out the benefits of background checks on ammunition. The entire country has only one gun store — a military-run establishment in Mexico City. That store is the only place that one can legally buy ammunition, and background checks are required. Mexico’s current murder rates are six times higher than those of the U.S., and twice what they were when the restrictions started in 1972.
“The [background check] 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,” Judge Benitez wrote in his decision. Well said, your honor.