In the wake of recent mass shootings—including one in December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, which took 26 lives, and one in late July at an Aurora, Colorado movie theater, which left 12 dead—an East Bay politician is pushing for new state restrictions on the sale of ammunition in California. The move has received widespread support from city and school officials in cities like Oakland and Richmond, which struggle with high rates of violent crime.
Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, (D-Berkeley), who introduced AB 48 at a press conference on January 7, said there is an urgent need to require identification from purchasers of ammunition, as well as to create a state database that will track who buys and sells bullets so that law enforcement can access that information. According to the California Department of Justice, there are currently no state-level regulations on these matters, although some cities and counties have enacted local laws. In proposing her legislation, Skinner cited the need to stitch together that piecemeal network of regulations.
“It’s bullets that make a gun deadly, so if we have restrictions on the purchase of guns, then shouldn’t we also have them on guns?” Skinner said in a phone interview late Monday. “There are cities, like Sacramento, that do keep track of ammunition sales—but when only a few communities have these laws on the books, then someone can proverbially walk across the street and buy the bullets there.”
Skinner, who officially proposed AB 48 on December 20, just a week after the Newtown shooting, criticized lax state regulations regarding the sale of ammunition. “Tragic but true, it’s easier to buy ammo than to buy cold medicine, alcohol, or tobacco,” she said in a press statement. “It’s time for buying deadly bullets to fall under the same controls as guns and Sudafed.”
Under AB 48, which Skinner wrote with Assemblymember Rob Bonta, (D-Oakland), ammunition sellers would have to be licensed, purchases would be reported to the Department of Justice, and people who buy bullets would be required to show identification. The state would create an online registry of all ammunition sold in California, which would be accessible to law enforcement agencies. The bill would also require the Department of Justice to notify police if a large amount of ammunition is bought by a single person in a short amount of time. Finally, the bill would ban weapon kits that convert guns into assault rifles by increasing the capacity of the magazine load.
“There are already really strong gun control laws in California, but there aren’t many controls against purchasing ammunition,” Bonta said in a phone interview late Monday. “We know that in recent national tragedies, the stockpiling of ammo was part of these horrible massacres.”
A running tally by the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Violence, a nonprofit research and advocacy group that lobbies for more comprehensive gun laws, show that in California, there are three counties and 12 cities that have implemented their own regulations regarding the sale of ammunition. These include Oakland, Los Angeles and Sacramento, each of which require an online registry of ammunition purchasers be kept by retailers who sell bullets. Online registries regularly require purchasers to provide information like their name, age, date of birth and address, as well as the type of ammunition bought, when it was purchased and their signature.
“Because there is no oversight on ammunition sales at the state level, laws like AB 48 become more important, because ammunition ought to be treated as seriously as firearms,” said Benjamin Van Houton, a managing attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Violence. “Look at Sacramento, where they started keeping track in an online database—law enforcement looked at those records, and identified a number of people with criminal convictions who had subsequently purchased ammunition.”
Skinner said she considered Sacramento’s laws when writing AB 48. There, purchasers of ammunition are required to show a government-issued ID card and give their thumbprint. Then the amount and type of ammunition purchased is recorded in an online database. Sellers are required to send the Sacramento Police Department a list of purchasers’ names every five days, according to Greg Halstead, a detective with the Sacramento Police Department who is assigned to a taskforce that inspects the ammunition registries.
“We run every name through our various criminal databases to see if there are any people who are prohibited from purchasing ammunition—for example, if they’ve been convicted of a felony,” Halstead said, noting that Sacramento’s regulation gives police the right to seize ammunition that was bought by someone who cannot legally purchase it. “Since the program started in January of 2008, we’ve seized 226 firearms, over 10,000 rounds and eight homemade explosive devices.”
Halstead said combing through each name, investigating the purchasers who illegally bought ammunition and getting search warrants for those who have felony backgrounds is time consuming and resource-intensive, but the program has been effective. “Our local district attorney has charged 334 people, and an additional 18 have been indicted in federal court based on their criminal history,” Halstead said.
Oakland does not permit the sale of guns or ammunition, according to Sgt. Christopher Bolton, a spokesperson from the Oakland Police Department. But, he added, the city still retains an overlapping law that requires an online registry of the sale of ammunition be kept citywide. Richmond is covered by Contra Costa County’s code, which states that every sale of ammunition must be recorded, noting the type and amount of ammunition bought, and purchasers are required to show their ID, and give their signature.
Opponents of the bill have criticized AB 48, saying it will wrongfully criminalize every person who buys ammunition. Scott Jackson, who runs a weaponry training company in Burlingame, California, said he relies on ammunition sales to run his business, called the Bay Area Firearms Training Group. “Regulating bullets is not addressing the problem,” said Jackson, adding that there should instead be more scrutiny over products like violent video games. “This new law would make me feel like a criminal, without being one. It’s like we’d be registered like a felon or a sex offender.”
Calls seeking comment from the National Rifle Association were not returned.
Bonta said the legislation will likely face some criticism on the Assembly floor. “I’m relatively confident it will pass, but I would expect there to be some controversy,” he added. “We’re having a national and statewide conversation right now, and this is something that’s necessary.”
So far AB 48 has received strong support members of the Oakland City Council and school representatives from Richmond and Oakland, many of whom appeared with Skinner at her January press conference. Halting violent crime is a serious concern in both cities. A school shooting at Oikos University in Oakland left seven dead in early April last year. In 2012, there were 131 homicides, making it the city’s deadliest year since 2006. In the first two weeks of 2013, there have already been six deadly shootings—four of which occurred in the span of six hours on Friday, January 11, alone, police said Monday. In 2012, Richmond saw a total of 18 homicides, according to Lt. Bisa French of the Richmond Police Department.
Newly inaugurated Oakland Councilman Dan Kalb, who represents North Oakland, was at last week’s press conference to support AB 48, holding a sign that read “Stop gun violence.”
“Crime has gotten out of hand, and we need to institute a range of things to reduce the violence and make our neighborhoods safer,” Kalb said in a phone interview later that week. “Just Wednesday afternoon there was a murder on 55th Street, in my district.”
Kalb said programs like Operation Ceasefire—a violence prevention program which targets a small number of violent offenders citywide and offers them a choice to either stop breaking the law or face focused attention from the police department—combined with putting more officers on the streets will go far in reducing violence in Oakland, as will gun buyback programs and anonymous tip lines residents can use to report illegal guns. “All these things have potential to save lives,” he said.
“I am proud to endorse AB 48, which will establish common-sense regulations on the sale of ammunition in California—requiring purchasers of bullets to show identification, requiring sellers to be licensed, and creating a state registry of sales similar to databases kept for the sale of some over-the-counter cold medicines,” said Rebecca Kaplan, who represents Oakland in the at-large seat on the city council. Kaplan’s platform during the November 2012 election included what she called “bullet control,” or regulating ammunition sales. “Our nation is having an important conversation around sensible laws to regulate the sale of firearms,” she said.
Diane Brown, who represents the United Teachers of Richmond, the district’s union, called the legislation “urgent.”
“We know that safety has always been an issue on our schools, but never at the magnitude that it is now,” Brown said in a phone interview Thursday, taking long emotional pauses as she spoke. “This is very difficult. We keep thinking about what happened in Newtown—we need to do what we can so our children don’t become targets.”
Richmond schools, part of the West Contra Costa Unified School District, are evaluating their safety plans in the wake of recent school shootings, Brown said. Brown said that in 2010 the district won a readiness and emergency-preparedness grant from the U.S. Department of Education, and they have regular police patrol officers in their schools who work to establish relationships with teachers and students. Faculty at the schools continue to have conversations about what to do in a violent attack, she said.
Marin Trujillo, a spokesperson for West Contra Costa Unified, confirmed Thursday that the district has at least one police officer dedicated to each of the district’s six high schools. He said there have been no incidents of violent school shootings at last in the last six years.
“This is a wake-up call,” said Brown referring to the school shooting in Newtown. “That’s why we support AB 48—because we believe that we need to work with our political leaders to stop this type of violence.”
Brown also said that many Richmond schools faculty are upset by the idea suggested by gun rights lobbyists that weapons should be brought in to schools by teachers and other school supervisors. “Guns are not the answer,” she said. “We need to invest in education and in our children, not train teachers to use guns.”
Trish Gorham, president of the Oakland Education Association, echoed Brown’s statements. “Slaughter on the scale of Newtown is thankfully rare,” Gorham said. “But AB 48 is a reasonable and practical response that can reduce the threat of massacre by controlling, at least as rigorously as decongestants, the purchase of bullets and magazines.”
Gorham said she recently spoke to an 8th grade teacher who was planning to attend the funeral of a former student who had been shot, the teacher’s second such funeral in the last five years. “Oakland’s children are even more vulnerable to random acts of gun violence from day to day; week to week,” Gorham said. “And that is why, as teachers, we support Assemblymember Skinner’s legislation—we want at least the beginning of a commitment to make our communities safer for our students.”
Troy Flint, spokesperson for the Oakland Unified School District, said there has never been a shooting on an Oakland public school campus, adding that there are 13 officers dedicated to patrolling 86 district-wide schools. (Oikos University, a privately-run college, is not a part of the Oakland public school system.) “Weapons on campus is not our number one issue,” Flint said. “But policing it is something we’re vigilant about.”
A representative from Skinner’s office said AB 48 next would be heard in the legislature’s public safety committee in late February or early March, then move to appropriations committee before being heard on the assembly floor. A vote is expected this spring, she said.