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.

NEXT: Leaders of ‘Rogue Regimes’ Have Some Thoughts About Police Brutality in America

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  1. 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 cause to protest!

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  2. Beautiful older Smith on that bench.

    As to the article, it’s California. Nothing they do surprises me anymore. Good on Judge Benitez. For awhile, in Virginia, VSP was supposedly showing up to places where a felon was trying to purchase a firearm, and trying to arrest them. Decent program for getting felons off the street, which is probably why it was discontinued.

    In other news, a witness claims George Floyd and Derek Chauvin not only knew each other at that nightclub, they had beef:

    Shocked face, I haz it.

    1. Note to foreign readers: “felon” is almost invariably christianofascist slang for someone caught with the wrong kind of plant seeds or plant leaves.

      1. A very good friend of mine was born in, and has always lived in California.
        He is not a felon or prohibited from owning firearms.
        He went to his local gunstore, with his valid California government issued identification, and was unable to buy a box of .22s.
        He was told the reason was because he hadn’t bought a gun within the last five years, and was therefore not in the data base.
        He was required to have a gun registered to him, in order to buy any ammo.
        Sounds ‘infringy’ to me.
        The laws have nothing to do with safety, or keeping them out of the “wrong hands”. The purpose is to make exercising your rights so arduous, so expensive, and so legally perilous, as to discourage anyone other than the kings and their men from having those rights.

        1. “He was told the reason was because he hadn’t bought a gun within the last five years, and was therefore not in the data base.
          He was required to have a gun registered to him, in order to buy any ammo.
          Sounds ‘infringy’ to me.”

          You and me both, Duke. I hope he owns CA’s ass.

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        2. I don’t quite understand how California can restrict a citizen from buying any legal product they wish.
          Explosive require a federal permit to acquire and have storage requirements.
          But you can buy all the diesel, gasoline, and Jell-O that you wish.
          You can buy all the chainsaws, vans, and many other dangerous products that you can afford.
          I can collect all the chainsaws I want, how do they legally justified in not allowing me to collect all the ammunition I want? Even if I don’t have a gun chambered in that caliber?

      2. No fuckhead, it usually refers to people who were violent. Even for those only busted for possessing your sacred plant. (Insert standard Libertarian disclaimer that the War on Some Drugs should be ended.)

        Again, because you’re an idiot, and require the further instruction. You are probably unsalvageable Hank, but maybe some poor bastard is visiting Reason and doesn’t already know this. Accordingly… the criminal justice system doesn’t charge, or try to convict on, every single crime it could possibly prove against a given offender. Usually, strict liability crimes are preferred, as they are easier to prove, and frequently come with as heavy or heavier sentences than malum in se crimes like assault, etc…

        So, it is entirely possible, and often the case, that vicious gang member Gary Gangbanger gets convicted of possession with intent to sell for some heavy weight, instead of the multitude of assaults, aggravated assaults, felon in possession of a weapon (which they don’t charge as much as they should), rape, etc… Reason then comes along and claims some time later that Gary is a victim of this unjust war, and where is the justice? Where is the peace?

        You see a conviction for weed, and think it’s the whole story.

        1. If this is accurate, it is a policy that needs to change if the criminal justice system wants to regain some credibility for genuinely dispensing justice. And having such credibility is a prerequisite for having a peaceful society. (I know this kind of thing has a long history, like convicting Al Capone of tax evasion. But everyone knew who he was, and what else he had been doing. If it’s done to people who are not well known, the reputation of the justice system itself suffers. And that matters.)

          1. It absolutely does.
            There is a terrible habit of overcharging to extract plea deals, and undercharging, such as dropping violent offenses, to close plea deals.
            It’s the worst of both worlds

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      3. Pot is legal in California. No one is arrested or locked up for possessing pot. Felon does not apply to marijuana in California…it refers to people convicted of crimes. Pot is no longer a crime.
        Long live California!

      4. Well, no. There are actually a great many felonies on the books. Martha Stewart ran afoul of one, insider trading, but the feds couldn’t get proof enough to charge her. So they kept interviewing her until they could convict her of “perjury” for answering questions in different ways in different interviews.

        My “favorite” is “felony release of balloons”

  3. “Unfortunately, the Standard background check also rejected 101,047 other law-abiding citizen residents that the laws were not designed to stop,”

    Bullshit. California laws are designed to stop as many gun and ammunition purchases as possible.
    (I notice that the AG did not mention how many of the illegal aliens arrested had already been arrested and released.)

    “criminals, tyrants, and terrorists don’t do background checks”

    Bullshit again; it is a tyrant who was giving the briefing.

    1. California State policy under the Newsom regime might actually prohibit any law enforcement or bureaucrats who interact with someone who failed a background check due to not having the RealID which requires proof of citizenship from asking the individual about their actual immigration status. Since they have pre-announced their refusal to comply with federal immigration laws in any way, preventing government employees from knowing whether or not any given person is in the country illegally gives them deniability for any ensuing failure to report anyone who is to ICE.

  4. “It is the invariable habit of bureaucracies, at all times and everywhere, to assume…that every citizen is a criminal. Their one apparent purpose, pursued with a relentless and furious diligence, is to convert the assumption into a fact. They hunt endlessly for proofs, and, when proofs are lacking, for mere suspicions. The moment they become aware of a definite citizen, John Doe, seeking what is his right under the law, they begin searching feverishly for an excuse for withholding it from him.”
    ~ H. L. Mencken

    1. Reason comments need an upvote system.

      1. Yes they do. Also an edit button.

    2. Exactly!

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  6. I’m all for liberty and what not but at some point can people be held responsible for living in California? Being deprived of your constitutional rights in California is like being hit by a car while dancing about on the freeway. Sure, it’s technically wrong that the driver hit you but a hell of a lot of responsibility falls on you, the victim, for putting yourself in that situation. California is what it is. The US would be better off giving them the boot legally and financially and simply allowing unrestricted trade/immigration with it.

    1. Well, I suppose we could co-opt Trumps boarder wall and build it around California instead.

      Can we give California back to Mexico?

      1. That just wouldn’t be humane. The gangs wouldn’t last a month.

      2. California is the 5th largest economy in the world, provides a good part of the nations nuts, fruits, and vegetables, is the world center of high tech investment and innovation, and has a long history of subsidizing red states. It also led the fight to legalize marijuana.
        It is the cutting edge…..and we would be glad to be our own nation….it would enrich us.

  7. Good reporting by Tuccille. Odly enough I was nostalgically going through some online versions of the old Loompanics and Paladin Press catalogs. Plenty of reloading kits, smokeless, a 2A library to make Patrick Henry feel it had all been worthwhile–that the new generations hadn’t squandered his bequest.

  8. In a state of 40 million people, they’re making a point of having “caught” the 12 (maybe really only 10) people in the state who couldn’t figure out the simple ways to circumvent the system at some level?

    How did anyone not see that the ammo purchase “background checks” were going to be used as a tool for detecting people with unregistered guns when it was announced that Prop 63 was going to be on the ballot? I don’t know that anyone would have predicted that simply buying a 22lr plinking pistol would be enough for most people to go undetected when buying ammo for a garage full of “ghost” AR-10s built from 80% aluminum lowers, but as long as most of the voters in the state don’t figure that out, Gavin Newsom can continue to pretend he’s a hero for creating something that only needs to be opposed by the NRA to be deemed a “success” (comprehending the actual results of policies would require a higher level of thinking than trusting that it must be good if the intent was framed in the right way).

  9. Bring all your ammunition to the statehouse and give it to the tyrants. I suggest high velocity mail.

  10. I guess since California isn’t doing raids for pot possession much anymore, they have to have something else to justify their door-busting practice lessons.

  11. Of 34 high-income advanced nations (and California would rank as the fifth most wealthy among them), all but the US have universal background checks, laws governing ammo, etc. The result?
    The gun murder rate ranges from 85% lower (Canada) to 99.9% lower (UK, Japan, South Korea), because while the judge says…”“First, criminals, tyrants, and terrorists don’t do background checks.” the fact is that they work very well in the other 34 nations because the law is not intended to get criminals to do background checks but to stop sellers from selling to them.

    Won’t they just get their guns illegally? Yes, but that is much riskier. In Japan, which once had a gun murder rate nearly as high as the US, the number of gun murders each year ranges from 1 to 10, and so even the famous gangs do not have and do not use guns. Likewise in the UK with about 35 gun murders a year.

    If you sell a gun to an unqualified person, under UBC, you can go to prison for years. It’s not worth it, and that’s why it works in 34 other advanced nations.
    The judge has been brainwashed by the NRA…UBC works very well as do all laws that filter out the violent by imposing servere penalties on anyone who sells illegally.
    Today, we have a useless law that makes it a crime for a private seller (and since that is unmonitored, it is easily abused) to sell to someone they know to be unqualified, but since background checks are not required, it is virtually impossible to know that and so the criminal can get an AR-15 and high capacity mags and ammo, with no background checks in 41 states…and the seller is not criminal because he has no knowledge of the person he is selling to. Such a law is worse than no law at all, since it creates the illusion that such sales are already illegal, but without any records, so what?

    The judge is an NRA true believer with no knowledge of the success of UBC in 34 advanced nations, which look at us as insane for allowing criminals to buy guns including military type weapons so easily….and the result is over 250,000 murders since 9/11 compared to about 150 in Japan, about 700 in the UK.

  12. If the gun murder rates in the US (99.9% higher than UK, Japan, and South Korea, 95% higher than Germany and Switzerland, etc) were seen as diseases such as cancer , and we saw 250,000 cases in the US since 9/11 and 150 in Japan and 700 in the UK, would we be clamoring for the cure they have found? It is no different with the social disease of gun murder. What if it were Covid19: 99.9% more in the US….and screw the success in all other 34 advanced nations.
    It is insanity.

    1. If you look up the “murder map “you will see that half of all US counties have no murders at all.
      Inspection of the murder map shows it correlates perfectly with democratically controlled inner cities.
      All of which have extremely strong anti-gun laws.
      If we were to factor out murders committed by gangs in the inner cities gun violence in the United States would be lower than all European countries.
      Any of the lefts’ sensible gun laws like universal background checks passed in the half of the country with no murders would have no effect at all.
      If you really wanted to stop “gun violence” , efforts would be concentrated in the inner cities with stop and frisk, prosecution of felons in possession of guns with lengthy prison terms, and severe penalties for straw purchase of guns for known criminals.
      Of course none of these methods are even on the gun banners radar because they would be racist as they would mostly impact black people.

  13. Police Put Innocent People at Risk of Police Violence

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