Appellate court affirms unconstitutionality of California ammunition controls


From DailyCaller, 11/14/13 – To follow up on an earlier NRA report, on November 6, California’s Court of  Appeals upheld a lower court decision invalidating a California law that  threatened to limit access to, and compel recordkeeping for, ammunition  sales.

The law, enacted as part of Assembly Bill No. 962, sought to impose onerous  restrictions on the sale, delivery, and transfer of “handgun ammunition,” with  criminal penalties for noncompliance.

With some exceptions, it banned  mail-order sales by requiring that the delivery or transfer take place through  face-to-face transactions, with “bona fide evidence of identity” from the  purchaser.  The purchaser also had to provide the vendor with a date of  birth, address, telephone number, driver’s license number, signature, and a  right thumbprint.  This information, along with the brand, type, and amount  of ammunition sold, and the salesperson’s name, would have to be maintained as a  record by the vendor for five years.

However, the key sticking point was Cal. Penal Code § 16650(a), which defined  “handgun ammunition” as “ammunition principally for use in pistols, revolvers,  and other firearms capable of being concealed upon the person, notwithstanding  that the ammunition may also be used in some rifles.”  Another section  defined pistols, revolvers, and concealable firearms exclusively by reference to  barrel length or barrel interchangeability design–specifically, as those with a  barrel less than 16 inches long.

The lead plaintiff, Clay Parker, the Tehama County Sheriff, was joined by the  NRA, the California Rifle and Pistol Association (CRPA), and several others in a  lawsuit that alleged these definitions, in the absence of any standard that  further clarified the term “principally for use,” created insurmountable  ambiguities that made it impossible for an ordinary, reasonable person to comply  with the law. Virtually all calibers of ammunition could be used safely in both  rifles and handguns, and the use standard could be interpreted (or not) to mean  only California users, or civilian users, or by reference to the ammunition  market at any given time.  They brought a facial challenge to the criminal  law, claiming it was void for vagueness under the due process clause of the  Fourteenth Amendment (in plain English, that the law, as written, failed to give  fair warning of the conduct that was prohibited, and lacked sufficiently  definite guidelines to prevent arbitrary or discriminatory enforcement by the  police).

Significantly, the evidence before the court on what constituted “handgun  ammunition” was inconsistent, and in many instances, was simply based on the  person’s personal experience; the State’s expert categorically excluded all  .22-caliber ammunition, citing a need for “further research and analysis”.   Unsurprisingly, no expert was able to reference an industry standard or a  universally accepted definition.  The trial court, finding the law lacked  any objective means by which an ordinary citizen or ammunition vendor could  determine which ammunition was most likely to be used in handguns, and standards  that protected citizens from the personal judgment call of each individual law  enforcement officer, declared the challenged provisions were constitutionally  invalid and enjoined their enforcement.

On appeal, California’s Fifth Appellate District Court agreed.  What  raised the stakes was that the law subjected persons to criminal liability, and  clearly implicated a “substantial amount” of constitutionally protected conduct,  both individual rights under the Second Amendment (which included the right to  acquire ammunition for one’s firearms), and the vendors’ Fourteenth Amendment  right to engage in legitimate business activity.  The court found  persuasive the fact that several firearms users, vendors with different  backgrounds, and experts had testified in the case, and “none shared the same  understanding of what is meant by the notion of ammunition ‘principally for use’  in handguns.”  All of these persons had some level of specialized  knowledge, which raised the question of how ordinary citizens–also bound by the  transfer of “handgun ammunition” requirements–would be expected to successfully  identify what was covered by the law.

The State’s argument–that it was no secret that certain ammunition cartridges  were more often used in handguns than in rifles–was too much of a hit-and-miss  standard.  “In the absence of baseline standards, the classification of  interchangeable calibers and cartridges as ‘handgun ammunition” may be … a  moving target.”  The court recognized the legal ambiguity as to what was  “handgun ammunition” would have likely forced vendors, particularly mail-order  and Internet sellers, to curtail ammunition sales, or make sales at the risk of  criminal liability, resulting in ammunition being unavailable, or available at a  greatly increased cost, to individuals in rural or remote areas.  The lack  of statutory guidance also effectively conferred discretion on individual police  officers to interpret the law as each saw fit, leading to selective or haphazard  enforcement.

This decision marks an important victory for California’s beleaguered gun  owners.  It ensures (at least for now) that they will remain free from the  law’s onerous and burdensome requirements, while also highlighting the  half-hazard and ill-considered thinking that underlies California gun control  agenda.

A copy of the court’s ruling is available here.

Read more:

%d bloggers like this: