Federal Judge Rules California’s Ammunition Background Checks Violate Constitutional Right to Bear Arms

SAN DIEGO – A federal judge in San Diego has ruled that California’s law requiring background checks for ammunition purchases is unconstitutional, as it violates the right to bear arms protected by the Second Amendment. U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez argued that the background checks have “no historical pedigree” and treat all citizens as if they have no right to buy ammunition. The judge, who was appointed by former President George W. Bush, also criticized California’s handling of the more than 1 million annual background checks, deeming the 11% rejection rate to be too high.

Governor Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Rob Bonta, both Democrats who supported the background checks, have yet to comment on the ruling. The lawsuit was brought forth by plaintiffs including Kim Rhode, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in shooting events, and the California Rifle & Pistol Association. Chuck Michel, the president and general counsel of the association, celebrated the decision as a “big win,” asserting that the background checks had blocked many eligible individuals from acquiring the ammunition they needed.

California voters had approved a 2016 ballot measure that required gun owners to undergo initial background checks and obtain a four-year ammunition permit for a fee of $50. However, legislators subsequently amended the measure to mandate background checks for each ammunition purchase, effective from 2019.

Judge Benitez dismissed California’s arguments by rejecting the historical analogues put forth by the state, including past restrictions on ammunition possession by marginalized groups. He deemed it illogical to justify similar restrictions today against individuals who possess constitutional rights, using examples of past prejudice and bigotry.

Since a 2022 U.S. Supreme Court decision expanded the right of people to carry firearms in public, federal courts have issued conflicting rulings regarding Second Amendment cases. In this context, Benitez’s decisions in favor of firearm owners, including his ruling that deemed California’s ban on high-capacity gun magazines unconstitutional, have drawn criticism from Governor Newsom.

This is not the first time that Judge Benitez has blocked California’s background checks requirement. In April 2020, he initially halted the law. The federal appeals court later requested him to revisit the ruling in light of the 2022 Supreme Court decision. While Benitez did not explicitly endorse the four-year ammunition permit, he suggested that it could be a more reasonable constitutional approach than the current scheme.

The case, Rhode et al v Bonta, was heard in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.