Cengiz Yar Jr. / AFP / Getty

Sharp divide over California's bullet background check bill

Measure requiring checks before ammunition purchases either small part of solution or needless annoyance, observers say

California’s Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday proposed a ballot initiative — which if it passes would be the first of its kind in the United States — meant to reduce gun deaths by requiring background checks on all ammunition purchases.

But gun violence researchers differ on whether the proposed measure would actually save lives.

University of Chicago professor Harold Pollack, who studies the interaction between guns on public health, said keeping track of who buys bullets could help the police prevent gun violence. 

“It creates a paper trail that can be very helpful to law enforcement. We have people committing mass shootings after buying up large amounts of ammunition,” Pollack said. “That’s a useful piece of data for law enforcement to know.”

Someone buying a large quantity of high-caliber ammunition — even after passing a background check — could raise a red flag and prompt authorities to investigate the buyer before or after a crime takes place, Pollack said.  

Beyond the mass shootings that grab headlines, Pollack said he believes background checks are a reasonable step that could lead to a decrease in overall urban gun violence.

“I would say many of the people who get guns and use guns in violent incidents are unsophisticated consumers," Pollack said. "Relatively low barriers make it harder for them to get access to weapons.” 

Much of Pollack’s work focuses on why the people police catch with guns decided to carry them. In many cases, according to his research, many people wanted protection from other armed people or groups — but he said there’s a limit to how far they’ll go to get their hands on a weapon.

“Criminal offenders do change behaviors because they’re worried about law enforcement,” Pollack said.

In addition to background checks for ammunition purchases, the California law would require owners of large-capacity magazines to hand them over to law enforcement officials. It would also require weapons dealers and owners to immediately report thefts of guns or ammunition.

But Pollack cautioned that the proposal in California would only be a partial approach to the problem of gun violence. Newsom’s plan “is just one piece of the puzzle, and it’s not a big piece, but it’s a helpful piece,” he said. “There’s a lot of reason to think getting a handle on ammunition and getting a record for investigation will give law enforcement the tools it needs to make stronger cases against people in the underground gun trade.”

Brian Given, a professor of sociology at Carleton University in Ontario researching gun culture in Canada, disagreed with Pollack’s conclusion. He told Al Jazeera that most people who buy thousands of rounds of ammunition are preparing to shoot up “a gun range, not a shopping mall.”

Given said new regulations would only frustrate law-abiding gun owners and do little to stop criminals. “Legislation that really does affect the bad guys is hard to develop because bad guys don’t obey the law,” he said

"It would be illegal for me to buy a fully automatic weapon," Given said, citing Canada's ban on such firearms. "But give me five days and a little exploration, and I could." 

In Canada, where a gun license is needed to purchase ammunition, Given said there is zero indication this policy has a saved any lives.

Newsom’s proposal still needs to gather 366,000 signatures before it qualifies for the November 2016 ballot, The Associated Press reported.

Newsom said his bill would ask California voters to make the decision directly through a referendum.  A similar measure, introduced by a state senator, failed to pass in the state legislature in 2014, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“We want to go straight to the people,” Newsom said Thursday at a news conference in San Francisco.

“We don’t want to see the intimidation and the tactics we’ve seen in the past through the legislative process. The NRA (National Rifle Association) is exceptionally gifted at that. But what we do in California is we right those wrongs.”

NRA spokeswoman Amy Hunter said in an email that Newsom’s ballot proposal is step toward even stricter gun-control laws.

“California illustrates the true gun-control agenda, which is the ultimate confiscation and banning of firearms. If Gavin Newsom gets his way, the state will be the next Australia,” she said, referring to strict gun laws Australia instituted in 1996 after a mass killing of 35 people, including two small children, siblings ages 3 and 6. 

Since Australia passed its restrictions, firearm deaths dropped to 266 in 2012 from 516 in 1996.

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