Glitches snarl start of California's ammo background checks

In this photo taken Tuesday, June 11, 2019, Chris Puehse, owner of Foothill Ammo displays a .45 caliber bullet for sell at his store in Shingle Springs, Calif. Californians will have to undergo criminal background checks every time they buy ammunition starting July 1 under a 2016 voter-approved ballot initiative. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California's new ammunition background check law began Monday not with a bang but with a whimper from dealers who reported delays and glitches with the state's online system.

But they said few customers were affected because most had stockpiled bullets or shotgun shells in the weeks before the new law took effect.

Voters in 2016 approved requiring criminal background checks for every ammunition purchase. But the state's latest attempt to deter gun violence only took effect Monday.

Vendors the length of California were frustrated by online snags including their inability to readily log in to the new system that is supposed to let them background-check customers with the state, though some put it down to a predicable learning curve.

Chuck Michel, an attorney for the National Rifle Association and the affiliated California Rifle & Pistol Association, said he will soon cite the glitches in seeking an injunction to block the law. The California affiliate sued last year, maintaining that the new law violates the Second Amendment right to bear arms, impedes interstate commerce and is pre-empted by federal law.

"I've had one customer, and I had to turn them away because I couldn't get into the system," Don Reed, owner of DGS Ammo & Airguns in Sacramento, said at midmorning. "He seemed a little bit perturbed. ... There's a lot of people feel like they're being held hostage suddenly — punishing the people who've been doing it the right way."

He was reading through dozens of pages online as he tried to log in, but he groused that "it would take a Philadelphia lawyer to figure it out."

Officials with the state Department of Justice, which administers the program, did not respond to repeated telephone and email requests for comment. The department said in a news release that it had sent vendors regulations and instructions on how to comply.

"The eligibility checks ensure purchasers are not prohibited from owning or possessing ammunition due to a felony and/or violent misdemeanor conviction or warrant, domestic violence restraining order, or mental health issue," the department said.

The state system is supposed to crosscheck one database of people who already cleared background checks when they bought guns in California with a second database of those who bought guns legally but are no longer allowed to own them. The process should take about two minutes, the department said Monday.

Customers pay $1 for the check. Those who pass get their ammo after clerks record the brand, type and amount of ammunition.

"So far it doesn't work at all. My system doesn't let me access it," said Steve Converse, a longtime clerk at Ade's Gun Shop in Orange, 30 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

Scott Emmett, the manager of the Ammo Bros store in San Diego, said the system was down for the first 45 minutes.

"I sat on the phone for about 40 minutes and no one answered" at the Department of Justice, he said after hanging up in frustration.

Emmett had a single customer by midmorning whose transaction took about 10 minutes instead of the couple minutes it would previously have taken to run a credit card.

"I can't believe the amount of paper it wastes," he said. "This one transaction for two types of ammo was almost eight pages long."

Andrew Hackett, manager of Nice Shot, an indoor shooting range in Redding, 160 miles north of Sacramento, said he would have to turn away customers because he'd had no guidance on how to log into the state system. Customers are allowed to buy ammunition to shoot at his range — they just can't take any home without a background check.

One of the clerks at OC Guns in Lake Forest, 45 miles southeast of Los Angeles, bought a box of ammunition just to see if it could be done.

"Confusing," said store owner Scott Bodkin. "Just a learning curve. We'll get through it."

Scott Dipman, vice president at Coyote Point Armory in Burlingame, 16 miles south of San Francisco, was frustrated with the online ammunition reporting forms.

"I have thousands of items that I'm going to have to manually type into the system," he said. "There's a learning curve for us to figure out what that the new procedure is, and unfortunately the state didn't give us any peek into what was going on."

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