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Judge Benitez Rules Against California’s Ammo Background Checks

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Federal Judge Roger Benitez
Roger Benitez, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California

In layman’s terms: A US District Court struck down an unconstitutional California law requiring background checks for each ammo purchase.

On January 30, United States District Judge Roger T. Benitez struck down an unconstitutional California law requiring background checks for each ammo purchase.

The California Rifle and Pistol Association were crucial in defending plaintiffs in the case, which has been strung out for years.

“Today’s ruling represents continued affirmation that the Bruen decision, and Heller before that, represent a sea change in the way courts must look at these absurdly restrictive laws,” stated CRPA President & General Counsel Chuck Michel. “Sure, the state will appeal, but the clock is ticking on laws that violate the Constitution.”

The case, known as Rhode v. Bonta, challenged Senate Bill 1235 which went into effect on July 1, 2019 requiring a background check for every ammunition purchase. The case was previously before the court, which enjoined the law. That decision was then appealed in 2020, and the appeals court remanded the case back to the district court to be heard within the context of the 2022 Bruen decision. “The Court consolidated a hearing on the renewed motion for preliminary injunction with a trial on the merits,” according to the 32-page decision.

This case is particularly amusing because California metaphorically shot itself in the foot by enacting this bill. In 2016, California voters had already approved a statewide ballot measure called Proposition 63, which created a system whereby gun owners would apply for an ammunition purchase permit good for four years at the cost of $50. This wasn’t good enough for California, though, and they pushed through Bill 1235, which was onerous in the extreme.

Judge Benitez, who has consistently ruled in favor of the Constitution on Second Amendment issues, observed a fatal flaw in California’s tactics in his decision:

Perhaps the simpler, 4-year and $50 ammunition purchase permit approved by the voters in Proposition 63, would have fared better.

He found the law unconstitutional in that it both failed the Bruen tests (text, history and tradition of prohibitions) and violated a standing commerce law:

Applying Bruen’s new lesson, this Court’s conclusion remains the same: the California ammunition background check laws violate a citizen’s right to bear arms. Once it becomes clear that acquiring ammunition is conduct covered by the plain text of the Second Amendment, it should be no surprise to discover that the government is unable to do that which it must now do: demonstrate that California’s first of-its-kind sweeping statewide restriction on buying firearm ammunition is consistent with this Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation. Because these laws are not consistent with the Nation’s history and tradition, they must yield to the Constitution.

With regard to the commerce clause, the Court wrote, “The anti-importation components violate the dormant Commerce Clause and to the extent applicable to individuals traveling into California are preempted by 18 U.S.C. § 926A.”

The District Court decision was immediately challenged by the state with a renewed request for a stay on January 31st along with an indication it will seek an appeal at the Ninth Circuit.

The decision in this case illustrates a common trend with anti-Second Amendment issues in that they are struck down at the District Court level before often being overturned at the Appeals Courts.

We will continue to watch this case.

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