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Going after the real killers

A bill regulating sales of ammunition for handguns would save lives.

September 21, 2009|GEORGE SKELTON

FROM SACRAMENTO — Guns don't kill people, it's true. Bullets do.

"Without ammo, a handgun is only good for pistol-whipping someone," notes Assemblyman Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles). "Ammo is the lifeblood of a handgun."

On Sept. 11, the last day of this year's regular legislative session, De Leon narrowly won final passage of a bill to regulate sales of handgun ammunition.

The assemblyman has a long list of gang shooting horror stories from his district, which stretches from Hollywood to the Alhambra city line and includes Echo Park, Lincoln Heights and part of East Los Angeles.

Stray bullets from gang crossfire have killed a 9-year-old girl playing in the kitchen, a 14-year-old girl as she sat in the back seat of her family's SUV and a 4-year-old boy while walking with his sister outside their home. Plus there has been a barrel-load of gangbanger assassinations.

De Leon's bill, AB 962, would make it illegal to knowingly sell handgun ammunition to criminals. Strangely, De Leon says, it's against the law for criminals to possess ammo but not for someone to sell it to them knowing they are criminals. The bill also would prohibit hard-core gang members -- those under court injunction restrictions -- from possessing handgun bullets.

And -- the more controversial part -- it would require:

* Ammunition dealers to keep bullets out of easy reach of potential shoplifters, similar to cigarettes.

* Dealers to check a purchaser's identification, take a thumbprint and make the records available to local law enforcement. There'd be no waiting period before delivery of the ammo, as there is with firearms.

* Handgun owners to buy their bullets face-to-face from a licensed dealer. They could order through the Internet or by mail, but they'd have to pick up the ammo at a store, just as they now must when buying a gun.

Opponents -- Republican legislators and the gun lobby -- complained about inconveniencing law-abiding citizens.

"I'd rather be inconvenienced and alive than have criminals convenienced and be dead," says Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, one of many law enforcement officials who support De Leon's bill.

"The problem is the criminals' easy access to ammunition because of the overemphasis on not inconveniencing law-abiding citizens," the sheriff adds. "The price we all pay is random violence. A safer society will also be a somewhat more inconvenienced society. . . . Those of us in the crime-fighting business need more solutions to control criminal violence."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has not signaled a position on the bill. But he vetoed another version by a different author five years ago. In the veto message, Schwarzenegger pointed out that the federal government once had a similar law and concluded it "was simply unworkable and offered no public safety benefit."

The federal law existed from shortly after Robert F. Kennedy's assassination in 1968 until President Reagan signed the repealer in 1986 -- a prehistoric era before the Internet and high-tech databases.

Since then -- and since Schwarzenegger's veto -- several California cities have proved that, with modern technology, they can use dealers' records as a crime-fighting weapon. They're able to track down felons and other people -- spousal abusers, the criminally insane -- who have violated the law by obtaining ammunition.

Los Angeles, Sacramento and 12 other cities -- including Beverly Hills, Carson, Inglewood, Pomona, Santa Ana, Santa Monica and West Hollywood -- have adopted ordinances requiring dealer record-keeping of ammo purchases.

In a 17-month period, L.A. police arrested 25 people; confiscated 20 weapons, including a machine gun; and seized more than 2,900 rounds of ammunition, according to Deputy Chief Charlie Beck.

Sacramento has California's most comprehensive ammo-control program. In less than 20 months, it found that ammunition had been illegally purchased by 229 people, including 173 felons. The district attorney filed charges against 190, trial was set for 136 and all but eight pleaded guilty. Seized were 160 firearms, including seven assault weapons and eight explosive devices.

Police Capt. James Maccoun, who heads the Sacramento gun detail, says dealers file their information to the department electronically. Every transaction is checked against a database of people prohibited from possessing weapons.

The dilemma for Sacramento, L.A. and the other cities is that when criminals learn about the dealer record-keeping, they can drive into another community and load up on bullets.

"We don't catch the smart ones," Maccoun says.

Beck says L.A.'s law "would be 10 times more effective if it were statewide."

The L.A. ordinance covers all ammunition, including shotgun shells.

De Leon's bill would cover only handgun bullets, a concession to hunters.

But that still didn't attract any Republican legislative support. The measure passed each house with no votes to spare.

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