A federal judge has ruled that California cannot enforce a law requiring people to undergo background checks to buy ammunition, declaring it unconstitutional.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez in San Diego said the gun control measure has “no historical pedigree” and violates the Second Amendment rights of citizens.
“A sweeping background check requirement imposed every time a citizen needs to buy ammunition is an outlier that our ancestors would have never accepted for a citizen,” wrote Benitez, a President George W. Bush appointee.
The judge also criticized the number of law-abiding gun owners who were rejected after undergoing background checks and prevented from buying ammo.
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“The 2019 rejection rate was 16%. Overwhelmingly, the rejections were either because the state had no record of gun ownership or because of personal identifier mismatches,” Benitez wrote. “One would expect problems and errors in a new system as extensive and ungainly as California’s unprecedented ammunition background check system. Unfortunately, today the background check rejection rate is lower at 11%, but it is still too high.”
Benitez issued a permanent injunction blocking the law from being enforced while the state appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
“These laws were put in place as a safeguard and a way of protecting the people of California, and they work,” said state Attorney General Rob Bonta, a Democrat. “Background checks save lives.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, also a Democrat, ripped the judge’s decision and accused Benitez of being in the pocket of the gun lobby.
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Like clockwork, Judge Benitez has yet again put his personal politics and fealty for the gun lobby over the Constitution and common sense,” Newsom said. “California will fight this extremist, illogical, and incoherent ruling as we defend our life-saving measures that are proven to keep our communities safe.”
The ammo background check law — which was approved by voters in 2016 as a ballot measure and amended by the legislature in 2019 to include each ammo purchase — was challenged by Kim Rhode, an Olympic gold medalist in shooting events, and the California Rifle & Pistol Association.
Chuck Michel, the group’s president and general counsel, called the decision a “big win,” saying that California had “blocked many eligible people from getting the ammunition they need, which is the true political intent behind most of these laws.”
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California had pointed to dozens of laws dating as far back as 1789 as “historical analogues” for ammunition background checks, including restrictions that prohibited slaves, Indians and others from buying ammunition.
The judge rejected that argument, saying, “these repugnant historical examples of prejudice and bigotry” against people who were not afforded constitutional rights do not justify similar restrictions now on people protected by the Constitution.
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Benitez’s ruling relied on the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 2022 decision that expanded gun rights nationwide. In binding precedent, the high court said that judges must assess whether a proposed firearm regulation is “consistent with this nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation” when confronted with decisions that can impact gun rights.
The case is Rhode et al. v. Bonta.
Reuters contributed to this report.