Up to $50/Year Fee (+ Up to 30-Day Waiting Period) for Buying Ammunition or Going Target-Shooting?

That’s what California Senator Kevin De Leon, chair of the California Senate Democratic Caucus, is proposing in California (bill text). To buy ammunition, you’d need to submit an application with a fee (which will be up to $50), and wait up to 30 days while the state conducts a background check. And the permit would need to be renewed each year; as I read it, each renewal would require a new fee.

So say that you want to make sure that you keep up your target-shooting practice. (Recall that gun control proponents often stress the need for gun owners to be properly trained — a need that I certainly don’t deny.) You’d want to go to a shooting range, and unless you thoughtfully stocked up on ammunition beforehand, you’d need to buy some ammunition. That means you have to plan your shooting range trip up to 30 days in advance, and spend up to an extra $50 on the trip. Next year, you’d have to do the same (again, unless you thoughtfully just buy ammunition in bulk). Fifty bucks isn’t a big deal for me, of course, and it might not be for you. But for lots of people, $50 is a lot of money.

OK, now let’s say that I take to the range several friends who haven’t shot before — something I’ve often done, and I suspect something that is many people’s first introduction to guns. Fortunately, the law wouldn’t require each of them to pay up to $50 for a permit, or to go through a background check that would take up to 30 days. I could just buy the ammunition (which could easily run more than $100 for a night of target-shooting for several people).

But could they reimburse me, either by paying a share of the ammunition costs or by, for instance, paying for my range fees or my gun rental costs while I pay for their ammunition? Or would such reimbursement make me a regulated ammunition vendor, who has to in turn insist that they have ammunition licenses, on the theory that I’d be “any person, firm, corporation, dealer, or any other business enterprise that is engaged in the retail sale of any ammunition, or that holds itself out as engaged in the business of selling any ammunition”? (“Retail sale” is defined in various other California statutes as referring to sales other than wholesale sales, so nonprofessional sales would likely qualify.)

1. Let’s say that the answer is that such chipping in for ammunition or for range fees would be legal, and wouldn’t require that the other guests have ammunition licenses. Then anyone who wants to get ammunition could just show up at a range, work out an arrangement with someone by which he’ll take advantage of the other person’s ammunition permit while paying for the range fees, and then pocket however much ammunition he needs. Such arrangements would become normal (especially if they offer a financial advantage to the ammunition license holder), and wouldn’t even be that indicative of criminal design, since many law-abiding people would like to use them to save on the license fees or to avoid the license delay. This will be called the “gun range loophole,” and people will clamor to “close” it. But so long as it’s open people will be able to get their ammunition without even going to the black market.

2. Alternatively, let’s say that getting ammunition this way is prohibited. This means that people who want to take their friends to the range would have to pay for all the ammunition themselves — fine for me, but probably a significant burden to many poorer people. This in turn will make it harder for people to learn about shooting, and will on balance reduce law-abiding gun users’ experience and accuracy with guns.

And what would be the crime control payoff? Obviously not keeping ammunition out of the hands of gang members and other serious criminals; they could easily have someone buy the ammunition for them, and they would ignore any criminal penalties for redistribution of the ammunition just as they ignore all sorts of other laws.

But even people who aren’t serious criminals should find it very easy to get the ammunition they need, with some mild illegality. They could talk to an acquaintance who has a stash of ammunition in his closet (most people who go target-shooting do, because it’s cheaper to buy in bulk, especially if you now have to pay an extra $50/year to buy new ammunition) and offer to buy some — illegal though it may be — or maybe get some for free and then do some favor in return, to provide some plausible legal cover. Nor will the acquaintance be likely to be that suspicious, since, as I mentioned, such transactions are likely to be very common, given many people’s desire to save on the license fee or avoid the 30-day wait for a license.

And on top of that, even if somehow none of their acquaintances are willing to share, how hard would it be to find a black market in ammunition? If there are 200 to 300 million guns in the country, there would likely be tens of billions of rounds of ammunition, including billions in California alone. Target-shooters, as I mentioned, often have hundreds of rounds in their closets, and will now have many more, since they’ll want to stock up for many years. Plus of course many thousands of people are reloaders — people who make their own ammunition as a hobby; there will be ample supply to fill the ammunition demand.

Even if the black market prices are, say, $2 a round (much higher than current retail prices), would that stop a street thug? Would that stop a would-be mass shooter, to whom money isn’t worth that much, given that he knows he’ll be either dead or in prison for life within a few days?

* * *

So, under either interpretation, Sen. De Leon’s proposal would make it harder for people to keep up their training in safe and effective gun use. It would make it harder for people to learn the basics about guns, by having a friend take them to the range. It would have relatively little effect on the rich and the upper middle class, but might be quite burdensome for poorer people.

And while it would burden the law-abiding, it would have basically no impact on would-be criminals, either career criminals or mass shooters. That’s true of many proposed gun restrictions; and it’s true of this one.