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California is not the most gun-friendly state in the Union. But you can still buy firearms and ammunition. However, there are additional hoops to jump through in the Golden State, and it’s worth understanding these laws so you can continue to shoot without breaking any laws.
Ammo is Vital
A firearm is useless without ammunition. The gun is the launching platform — it’s the cartridge that does the work. If you want to learn to shoot or maintain your marksmanship skills, you need to practice — that requires ammo. Dry firing helps, but it’s not enough.
However, buying ammunition is more difficult in California than in many other states. For example, in neighboring Arizona and Nevada, you can buy ammunition online or from a gun store with minimal interference. If you’re wondering how to buy ammo in California, the process, while more complicated, is not impossible to navigate.
How to Buy Ammo
In 2016, California voters passed Proposition 63. This ballot measure prohibited the possession of magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition and established fines for failure to report lost or stolen firearms to the authorities.
In most states, you only need to complete a background check to purchase a firearm from a federal firearms licensee (FFL). However, the Dealer’s Record of Sale (DROS) process also requires a private citizen to undergo a background check before purchasing ammunition.
This further complicates the process. You can no longer buy ammunition online and have it shipped to your home. Following Proposition 63, if you want to buy ammo, you have to patronize an authorized vendor, such as an FFL.
As with buying a gun, you’ll need to show proof of ID and be at least 18 years of age for long-gun ammunition (i.e., rifle cartridges and shotgun shells) and 21 years of age for handgun ammunition. In California, if you intend to use your driver’s license as ID, it must be REAL ID compliant.
The REAL ID Act, passed by Congress in 2005, established new requirements for state driver licenses.
A REAL ID-compliant California driver’s license should have a golden bear and star logo in the top right corner of the card. If you don’t have a REAL ID driver license, you will need to provide additional documents to prove your identity, such as a valid U.S. passport.
You’ll need to complete an eligibility check and, once you’re approved by the California Department of Justice, you’ll sign a Dealer Record of Sale of Ammunition.
Unlike purchasing a firearm, you don’t need a Firearm Safety Certificate (FSC).
If you are prohibited from owning firearms, you are not legally entitled to purchase ammunition. But, how is this determined?
There are three types of ammunition eligibility checks in California:
- Standard Ammunition Eligibility Check
- Basic Ammunition Eligibility Check
- Certificate of Eligibility Verification
1. Standard Ammunition Eligibility Check
In the Standard Eligibility Check, the California Department of Justice (CDOJ) will check your information — name, date of birth, current address, and driver license — against the Automated Firearm System (AFS) database. If an entry is found, the CDOJ will cross-reference your information against the Prohibited Armed Persons file.
If the Department does not find a match, the transaction may proceed. The price of a Standard Eligibility Check is $1, and the processing time is typically only a few minutes.
No AFS Record
If no entry is found, the transaction will be unable to proceed. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re in a prohibited category, however. You’ll need to have a record in the Automated Firearm System for the standard check to work. When you purchase a firearm, the Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL) should automatically register your ownership.
However, if you bought a rifle or shotgun prior to January 1, 2014, the CDOJ was not permitted to record this information. As a result, the records before that date pertain to assault weapons and voluntary reports.
As the standard check requires that you have a record in the Automated Firearm System, you may be wondering how you can establish a record. You can fill out and submit a Firearm Ownership Report to the CDOJ.
2. Basic Eligibility Check
In the Basic Ammunition Eligibility Check, the CDOJ will conduct a comprehensive review of its records. This costs $19 and may take several days — up to a maximum of 10. The ammunition vendor provides you with an Ammunition Transaction Number. This allows you to monitor your eligibility check status via the California Firearms Application Reporting System (CFARS).
3. Certificate of Eligibility
If you have a Certificate of Eligibility issued by the CDOJ, you should advise the vendor. He will conduct a certificate of eligibility verification check. This, like the Standard Check, costs $1.
One Transaction, One Standard Check
If you use the Standard Ammunition Eligibility Check, which costs $1, it’s only valid for one transaction. That means that every time you buy ammo from a vendor, you will have to undergo a separate eligibility check and pay another fee.
If you’re a California resident, you can’t bring ammunition into California from another state unless you have it delivered to an authorized ammunition vendor. You’ll have to undergo the same process as when you buy ammo from a gun store.
A California resident can no longer buy ammo from an online seller, such as a gun store, and have it shipped to their private residence. You need to have the seller ship it to an FFL and complete the background to collect it.
Unfortunately, you will now have to pay the FFL’s transfer fee, the same as if you had ordered a firearm. This can reduce the viability of buying ammo online — it’s not as cost-effective.
If, however, you are an FFL, you can bypass this process entirely. That doesn’t mean that you need to own a gun store. You can apply for an 03 FFL — Collector of Curios and Relics. You’ll also need a California Certificate of Eligibility.
Understanding how to buy ammo in California is necessary to avoid running afoul of the law. Provisions of Proposition 63 are currently under judicial review. So keep an eye on how these pending decisions unfold.
Fortunately, Proposition 63 does not apply to reloading supplies — bullets, cartridge casings, propellant powders, or primers.
Alternatively, if you can afford it, buy ammo in bulk from an approved vendor. That way you’ll have to pay fewer background check fees.
The Bottom Line
As a shooter, you need ammo to practice, participate in shooting sports, hunt, and defend yourself. California makes it harder but not impossible.