Gun control advocates in Sacramento are putting a new twist on an old NRA slogan: "Guns don't kill people -- bullets kill people."
Democratic lawmakers are pushing like never before to regulate or tax ammunition sales. They say the logic is simple: A firearm is nothing but an expensive paperweight without ammunition.
"We regulated gun sales because of our concern about safety, (so) by logical extension we should do so with bullets," said state Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, whose AB48 will be heard Tuesday by the Assembly Public Safety Committee.
Gun-rights advocates are preparing a counter-offensive, arguing that ammunition-control bills are a not-so-back-door assault on the Second Amendment.
"It's a way to red-tape the right to bear arms to death," said Chuck Michel, the California Rifle and Pistol Association's attorney, promising to sue if any such bills pass. "It's all part of a campaign of shame, the fight to make it as difficult as possible for law-abiding citizens to make the choice to have a firearm for self-defense."
As lawmakers mull how to curb gun violence in the wake of December's massacre of school children in Newtown, Conn., some note that California and federal laws also forbid those who aren't allowed to own firearms from owning ammunition -- but there's no way to tell who's buying it.
Skinner's bill would require all ammo dealers to be licensed and all ammo buyers to provide identification information that would go to a state registry. The registry could then be compared with a state database of people prohibited from owning guns and ammo because of crimes, mental health issues or other reasons. It also would tip police to massive purchases.
Another bill, SB53 by state Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, would require a background check and an estimated $50 fee for a one-year permit to buy ammunition. Bills in Congress similarly would require dealer licensing or buyer background checks, but those are no doubt dead on arrival in the Republican-led House.
Only Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey and the District of Columbia now require some sort of license to buy ammunition. New York passed a law in January requiring background checks for ammo purchases, but it hasn't taken effect yet.
So even in California, where guns are heavily regulated, you can walk into a store, show ID to prove you're at least 18 (or for handgun ammunition, 21), plunk down your money and walk out with a box of cartridges. Easier yet, you can buy all you want online.
Gun shops report ammo is flying off the shelves as gun owners worry about proposed new laws.
Assemblyman Rob Bonta said his AB187 -- a 10 percent tax on ammunition to fund crime prevention -- might merge with another lawmaker's proposed nickel-per-round tax to fund mental-health screening for children. Bonta, D-Oakland, said his tax is mostly about generating money to "combat the gun violence in our communities," but could have the "secondary benefit" of stemming "rampant sales."
Yet he acknowledged it won't be easy to pass, even with Democratic legislative supermajorities and recent Field Poll findings that 61 percent of California voters favor ammunition taxes and 75 percent favor background checks and permits for ammo purchases.
Because a new tax faces the hurdle of a two-thirds vote, "it's a heavy lift," Bonta said.
Some Democratic state lawmakers aren't eager to discuss the bills. Of eight -- five assemblymen and three state senators -- who scored above zero on the National Rifle Association's 2012 scorecard, only state Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, would be interviewed for this story.
Beall said he's not yet very familiar with the legislation but sees little reason for a state ammunition bureaucracy that would cost taxpayers money to create and maintain. "A lot of those bills probably won't get through the Appropriations Committee" while education is a funding priority, he said.
California's 2009 law requiring dealers to record all handgun ammunition sales remains in limbo after an appeals court ruled that it's too ambiguous because some rounds can be used both in handguns and rifles. The bills now pending would affect all ammunition.
Mike Smith, co-owner of The Gun Works in Pleasant Hill, said the proposed bills would drown sellers in paperwork but have "zero" effect on crime because "criminals don't buy ammunition; they steal it."
As for the proposed ammo tax, he said, gun owners shouldn't be compelled to pay extra for crime prevention.
"Bonta replied that firearms and ammunition taxes date back to 1919 and are "a perfectly responsible way to fund emergency services."
"AB187 is on the right side of history."
In the California Legislature:
AB 48 by Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley -- Would require ammunition sellers to be licensed; ammunition purchasers to show identification; ammunition sellers to report all sales to the state Justice Department, which would create a registry of ammunition purchases. First hearing: April 2.
AB 187 by Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland -- Would impose a 10 percent tax on all ammunition sold in the state, with the revenue directed to a fund for crime-prevention efforts in the state's high-crime areas. No hearing date set.
AB 760 by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento -- Would impose a 5-cent tax on each bullet sold in California, dedicating the revenue to an existing program to screen young children for mild to moderate mental illness -- and intervene with strategies to address their problems. First hearing: April 15.
SB 53 by state Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles -- Would require anyone buying ammunition to first pass a background check and receive a one-year permit, for an estimated $50 fee, from the state Justice Department. First hearing: April 16.
S.35, the Stop Online Ammunition Sales Act of 2013, by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. -- Would require face-to-face purchases of ammunition, require licensing of ammunition dealers and reporting of bulk purchases of ammunition. A companion bill in the House, HR142, is sponsored by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y.
S.174, the Ammunition Background Check Act of 2013, by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. -- Would require an instant background check for the purchase of ammunition and would restore pre-1986 requirements that sellers track their inventory and keep records of their customers. Purchases of 1,000 rounds or more, or thefts of large amounts of ammunition, would have to be reported to law enforcement.