Restrictions on Handgun Ammo Sales Void for Vagueness - California Case Law
California Case Law - The FindLaw California Supreme Court and Courts of Appeal Opinion Summaries Blog

Restrictions on Handgun Ammo Sales Void for Vagueness

This case comes down to one thing that is even more sure than death or taxes: lawmakers shouldn't write laws about things that they are ignorant of. Such a lack of understanding of gun basics is what doomed this state ammunition restriction to the trash bin.

A California law, passed in 2010 and blocked by a trial court in Fresno in 2011, placed a number of restrictions on the purchase of ammunition that was "principally for use" in handguns, including fingerprinting, sales tracking, and a ban on online and mail-order sales. That law is void for vagueness.

And because we realize that not all lawyers are familiar with the fine points of firearms and ammunition, we're going to make this a bit of a gun terminology lesson.

What Is a Handgun?

California law defines a handgun as:

"any device designed to be used as a weapon, from which is expelled a projectile by the force of any explosion, or other form of combustion, and that has a barrel less than 16 inches in length. These terms also include any device that has a barrel 16 inches or more in length which is designed to be interchanged with a barrel less than 16 inches in length."

So, this is a handgun. And this is a rifle. And this is something somewhere in between.

Ammo 'Principally for Use' in Handguns is What, Exactly?

See that handgun? And that rifle? They both shoot the 9mm round. That's the problem here, and the crux of the plaintiffs' argument: ammo is often interchangeable between rifle and pistol. The 9mm is used more often in pistols, but certainly in both. The plinker's classic, the .22, was cited by both the state's expert and the court as a "dual use" cartridge, meaning it is equally popular for both.

Of course, there are some rounds that one wouldn't shoot in the other (such as this round, meant for killing elephants, which works fabulously in a rifle but would be mildly painful to shoot from a pistol) and others that are shot more often in pistols.

Void for Vagueness

Applying the two-pronged test of the void-for-vagueness doctrine from Williams v. Garcetti, the majority held that:

"We find no basis ... upon which to conclude there is a common understanding or objective meaning of the term 'handgun ammunition.' The level of certainty necessary to provide fair notice of the proscribed conduct and adequate standards for compliance with the law is missing. Therefore, the statutory scheme is unconstitutional.

Because the challenged provisions fail to provide meaningful guidelines or discernable standards, there is a significant risk of arbitrary and discriminatory application by law enforcement officials ... As such, the statutes do not satisfy the due process requirements under the second prong of the void-for-vagueness doctrine."

The plaintiff's expert cited treatises, non-public Department of Justice databases, his experience and expertise, along with the Internet, to draft his list of 16 cartridges that fall under the statute's vague terms, but the everyday gun owner or ammo salesperson doesn't have such expertise or resources.

Related Resources: