California Ammunition Raids Put Innocent People at Risk of Police Violence

The state boasts of blocking 754 illegal purchases, but it wrongly tagged 101,047 law-abiding people as prohibited. Any of them could have been targeted.


Last month, California's attorney general publicly patted himself on the back over raids and arrests resulting from failed background checks for people attempting to purchase ammunition. The multiple police operations and inevitable press release were likely a slap at a federal judge who ruled against such background checks in April. The raids were also dangerous, given the unreliability of state records and the resulting frequency with which innocent Californians are wrongly tagged as prohibited persons. Political posturing and bureaucratic incompetence put people at risk of potentially deadly police raids just as law enforcement once again comes under national scrutiny.

On May 19, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra's office breathlessly announced "12 operations throughout the state where special agents with the California Department of Justice seized dozens of firearms, tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition, ghost guns, assault weapons, and drugs over the last month. In all of the operations, investigators obtained critical information as a result of ammunition background checks. Ammunition background checks are the result of Proposition 63, which was passed by an overwhelming majority of Californians in 2016 in order to keep ammunition out of the hands of violent criminals and other prohibited persons. As a result of the law, more than 750 prohibited individuals were stopped from illegally purchasing ammunition largely over the second half of last year alone."

Background checks may have stopped "more than 750 prohibited individuals" from purchasing ammunition at legal outlets, but that was almost incidental to its real impact. "Unfortunately, the Standard background check also rejected 101,047 other law-abiding citizen residents that the laws were not designed to stop," U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez wrote in an April 23 decision blocking enforcement of the law for several reasons, including constitutional concerns. "The standard background check rejected citizen-residents who are not prohibited persons approximately 16.4% of the time."

Judge Benitez wasn't first to note the mess California made of background checks. In December of last year, the Sacramento Bee led a story on the issue with the case of Zachary Berg, a Sutter County sheriff's deputy who was unable to purchase shotgun shells "because his personal information didn't match what state officials had in their database." For Berg and the tens of thousands of other Californians wrongly turned away, "the rejections appear to have occurred because of errors and omissions in the Department of Justice's own gun-registration database," the story noted.

Shoddy implementation of the law is no surprise given that ammunition background checks and raids on supposedly forbidden would-be purchasers are extensions of an earlier policy regarding firearms. The state has applied its heavy hand to such dubious targets as Lynette Phillips, who was listed as "prohibited" because she checked herself into a hospital after adjusting poorly to a psychiatric medication change (seized guns were subsequently returned). It also went after Jeffrey Scott Kirschenmann, who made a good-faith effort to register a gun but was unable to keep current with the state's ever-shifting restrictions on just what features are and aren't permissible on rifles (charges were dismissed after state agents seemingly misread the paperwork).

The potential for not just injustice, but tragedy, in such cases is apparent, since news reports describe the raids as being carried out by contingents of armed and armored California Justice Department agents. Anybody who needs a refresher course in the potential dangers of police enforcement of laws great and small need only take a peek at current headlines regarding the killing of George Floyd over a suspected counterfeit $20 bill and the resulting protests and unrest. Or they could consider the killing of Breonna Taylor during a misfired drug raid. And then there's the killing of Duncan Lemp during a raid for alleged illegal firearms possession.

Those headlines should also be a reminder that the government enforces its will unevenly, coming down hardest on individuals and communities who enforcers dislike.

Unfortunately, Judge Benitez's order blocking the background-check law was itself blocked in May by a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, while the case against the law makes its way through the courts. That cleared the way for Becerra's publicity-stunt raids on suspects who attempted to purchase ammunition and were turned away.

We know that no mayhem ensued and that the people on the receiving end of the raids really were prohibited from purchasing ammunition because Becerra issued a press release after the fact rather than cover up a fiasco. Having been warned by Judge Benitez that the law too frequently ensnared innocent people, the California Justice Department seems to have put a little more care than usual into its high-profile stunt so that officials could issue boasts rather than apologies.

But what was accomplished? Given the drugs and (illegal in California) ghost guns seized in the raids, it's obvious that the targets had access to black market sources but tried to make legal purchases. Judge Benitez may have slightly overstated the case when he wrote that "criminals, tyrants, and terrorists don't do background checks" (people do stupid things all the time) but it's probable that some raid subjects had no idea they had done anything to put their names on the naughty list. They may have been non-violent offenders of one of the laws—drug prohibition comes to mind—that carry nasty legal consequences for minimal reason (Becerra's office didn't say).

Just weeks later, it's difficult to consider those raids without envisioning what could have gone wrong. To contrast the "754 persons with felony convictions, mental health holds, certain misdemeanor convictions, or illegally present in the United States, prevented from buying new ammunition" documented by the federal court with the "101,047 residents who are not prohibited persons but who still failed a background check" is to see the potential for wrongful arrests, violated civil liberties, and unjustified deaths of innocent people at the hands of law enforcement agents.

Now, amidst a national discussion about policing and law enforcement, the California attorney general's eagerness to stage publicity-seeking raids to enforce an easily bypassed restriction that is incompetently administered and constitutionally suspect should give everybody pause. As is so often the case when it comes to multitudes of laws and armies of law enforcers, Becerra falsely claims to be "protecting Californians" even as he puts state residents at risk of violence from government agents.