Gun rights supporters won a major legal victory last week when a California judge struck down as unconstitutional a law that they say would have effectively banned online sales of handgun ammunition just days before it was to have taken effect.
Given the sheer size of the California market, the law would have had a major impact on national online ammunition sales, and some online ammo sites had already suspended sales to California.
While gun rights advocates cheered the decision, which came amid heightened focus on gun control issues in the wake of the Arizona shooting spree, supporters of the law say ammo sales are dangerously unregulated. And they say they have evidence that millions of rounds of ammunition are illegally sold to convicted felons every year.
The California Handgun Ammunition Registration Bill was signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in October 2009 and would have taken effect on Feb. 1. The law would have required that all ammunition sales in California involve a face-to-face transaction and fingerprint registration of the purchasers. Gun owners who wished to use online sites or catalogs would have been forced to have their ammunition shipped to a local gun dealer so the transaction could be performed in person, a requirement that opponents say would have effectively ended online sales.
Dealers who failed to obtain fingerprints during a purchase would have been guilty of a misdemeanor crime. While the law would have applied only to handgun ammunition, dealers said it would have effectively ended all online ammo sales in California, as rounds that can be used in handguns can often be used in rifles.
Fresno County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Hamilton struck down the law last Tuesday, saying the definition of handgun ammunition used in the legislation was so vague as to be unconstitutional. California's Attorney General Kamela Harris said she might appeal the ruling.
The lawsuit was filed by the California Rifle and Pistol Association, among other groups, and backed by the National Rifle Association, which quickly declared victory.
The ruling was "an important victory for California gun owners," the NRA said in a statement on its Web site. "For now, at least, mail order ammunition sales to California residents can continue, and ammunition sales need not be registered under the law." NRA officials did not immediately respond to msnbc.com's request for comment.
Research: Felons can buy bullets now
The law's sponsor, Democratic State Sen. Kevin De Leon of Los Angeles, said the decision was outrageous.
"I'm disappointed because the NRA went shopping for the right court and the right judge and it looks like they found him," he said. "It was a politicized decision. ... In light of what just took place in Tucson as well as a string of shootings that took place last week in Los Angeles ... it's disappointing. What we're trying to do is to protect families and children, not trying to prevent anyone from lawfully getting ammunition."
De Leon pointed to research that found 10,000 rounds of ammunition were purchased by felons during one three-month stretch in Los Angeles -- 2.5 percent of all purchases -- after that city passed a face-to-face requirement in 1998. A similar study in Sacramento conducted in 2008 after that city's law was implemented found a 3 percent felony purchaser rate. In each case, police discovered the felons during spot checks done after the purchases; the infrastructure is not yet in place to conduct real-time background checks on ammunition purchases.
Extrapolated nationwide, he said, millions of bullets have likely been purchased by convicted criminals.
"In Sacramento, they found 150 felons had purchased handgun ammunition. Three were murderers. They went to their homes and found thousands of rounds of ammunition, rifles, and automatic weapons," De Leon said. "Quite a few of them were on probation."
Criminals soon wised up, he said, and began purchasing ammunition in other towns, leading De Leon to believe California needed a statewide law.
The technicality used to throw out the law -- the vagueness of the definition of handgun ammunition -- might impact other California regulations, De Leon said. The definition has been used in state laws for three decades, including laws banning so-called "Cop Killer" bullets that can pierce body armor and a ban on ammunition sales to minors, he said.
Gun advocates pointed out that alleged Tucson shooter Jared Loughner purchased his ammunition legally in a face-to-face transaction, and an online ban wouldn't have hindered his shooting spree.
And the California Rifle and Pistol Association Foundation said the new regulations would have been ineffective.
"This was just going to cost police and shell ammunition sellers money. It really wasn't going to stop violent crime or criminals from getting ammunition," the organization's attorney, Chuck Michel, told the Associated Press. "All this was going to do was impose a tremendous and expensive burden on law enforcement."
1 in 10 states restrict online sales
It's unclear how much of an impact an online ammunition ban would have had on the sporting gun market. Major e-tailers like Amazon have shied away from online ammunition sales, and Walmart doesn't sell bullets at Walmart.com. The National Shooting Sports Foundation suggests online sales is a small but significant market segment. The organization estimated that California dealers would have lost about $35 million in online and mail-order sales annually if the law had taken effect. The advocacy group estimates that sporting firearms is roughly a $2.3 billion annual business, with about one-third of that revenue coming from ammunition sales.
Firearms cannot legally be purchased and delivered through mail-order services or websites. They can be purchased online, but must be shipped to a local gun dealer who can complete the transaction in person. De Leon has argued that the new regulations merely extend gun-purchase rules to ammunition sales, complaining that currently, anyone can sell bullets – including gas stations, tackle stores and private sellers.
"In California right now, we have no idea who sells ammunition and who buys it," De Leon said.
While the state ban in California has been struck down, municipal bans in cities like Sacramento and Los Angeles remain in effect. A patchwork of laws nationwide have the practical impact of limiting online sales in many locations, according to Kevin Crane, who operates LuckyGunner.com, an online ammunitions sales site based on Knoxville, Tenn.
"Purchasing ammo online ... in one out of every 10 states in the U.S. is somewhat restricted," he said.
For example, licensing rules in Massachusetts essentially prevent online dealers outside the state from shipping to Massachusetts residents. Cook County, Ill., specifically bans mail order and online purchases. Paperwork requirements in the rest of Illinois and in New Jersey create significant obstacles for online sales. Meanwhile, added shipping expenses and restrictions involved in air-based shipping of ammunition make online sales to Hawaii and Alaska impractical, he said. (For more details, click here.)
Crane said he thought the California law was misguided and would have added an undue burden on local dealers to obtain and maintain copious records on purchasers.
"It would have criminalized something that is completely legal," he said.
Californians were reacting dramatically to the impending Feb. 1 law, he said, with nearly half of his site's revenue in January involving sales to California residents, he said, up from 20 percent normally. "We have a tremendous amount of visitors from California who did not want to be fingerprinted or have their IDs scanned by a local gun shop," he said.
But De Leon argued that currently inconvenience is a small price to pay for measures that would make California safer.
"I don't think it's asking too much to be slightly inconvenienced to go pick up your handgun ammunition at the store as opposed to in your robe and slippers," he said.