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Federal Appeals Court Upholds California's Ammunition Background Check Law

By Lawrence J. Tjan | Posted on February 6, 2024

Federal Appeals Court Upholds California's Ammunition Background Check Law

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In a significant legal development, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has intervened to maintain California's requirement for background checks on ammunition purchases, pausing a lower court's decision that deemed the law unconstitutional. This move comes after a contentious ruling by U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez of San Diego, who found that the law infringed upon the Second Amendment's right to bear arms. The appeal, led by the state's Democratic administration, challenges Judge Benitez's decision, marking another chapter in the ongoing debate over gun control measures.

The appellate court's decision, delivered by a 2-1 vote, reflects the judiciary's divided stance on gun regulation. U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Clifton, appointed by Republican President George W. Bush, and U.S. Circuit Judge Holly Thomas, appointed by Democratic President Joe Biden, formed the majority. In contrast, U.S. Circuit Judge Consuelo Callahan, another Bush appointee, dissented, questioning the state's likelihood of success in its appeal.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta hailed the ruling as a victory for the state's "life-saving" ammunition regulations, emphasizing the law's importance in the ongoing effort to safeguard public safety. The law, which was a direct result of a 2016 voter-approved ballot measure, initially required gun owners to pass a background check to buy ammunition and obtain a four-year permit for a fee. Subsequent legislative amendments in 2019 mandated background checks for each ammunition purchase, intensifying the scrutiny on ammunition sales.

The law's challengers, including Olympic gold medalist shooter Kim Rhode and the California Rifle & Pistol Association, expressed disappointment with the appellate court's decision. Chuck Michel, president and general counsel of the association, announced plans to seek further review, aiming to overturn what they view as an infringement on the constitutional right to access ammunition for sporting and self-defense purposes.

This legal contest gains further complexity in the wake of the Supreme Court's June 2022 decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, which expanded the interpretation of the Second Amendment to include the right to carry handguns in public for self-defense. The ruling also introduced a new standard for evaluating firearm laws, requiring them to align with the nation's historical tradition of firearm regulation.

Judge Benitez's ruling against the ammunition background check law cited a lack of historical precedent for such regulations, challenging California's defense that numerous laws dating back to 1789 served as adequate historical analogues for the current checks.

The 9th Circuit's decision to stay the lower court's ruling ensures that California's ammunition background check law remains in effect, pending further judicial review, and highlights the ongoing national debate over gun control legislation and the balance between public safety and constitutional rights.

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