BB&K Police Bulletin: Ammunition Regulations: Criminal Statutes Restricting “Handgun Ammunition” Vague and Invalid

Overview: A California appellate court recently held that criminal statutes regulating handgun ammunition (defined as ammunition “principally for use” in “pistols, revolvers, and other firearms”) were unconstitutionally vague and therefore void. The statutes recognized that some calibers of ammunition could be used in both rifles and pistols, but did not clarify what type of caliber or cartridge would qualify as “handgun” ammunition. Because a “caliber” had multiple definitions and comprised over a thousand different cartridges that could be used interchangeably with rifles and handguns, the statutes failed to notify ordinary people of the illegal conduct. The statutes also lacked minimal standards or guidelines to prevent arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. Further, because the challenged provisions implicated significant Second and Fourteenth Amendment rights, their vague classifications violated due process.

Training Points: This area of public safety regulation remains unsettled. While public safety may be increased with government regulations on firearms and ammunition, legislatures are having issues crafting a regulatory scheme that does not run afoul of Second Amendment rights. Additionally, this area is a hot button topic with local, state and national political implications. Officers should continue to use their best judgment and discretion in applying the laws as written, mindful of the fact that local regulations restricting the sale and/or transfer of ammunition may be subject to legal challenge. Command staff should consult with legal counsel in developing plans for enforcement or non-enforcement of such regulations.

Summary Analysis: In Parker v. State of California, Tehama County Sheriff Clay Parker, the California Rifle and Pistol Association Foundation, and various sporting goods stores challenged Penal Code sections regulating the sale, display and transfer of handgun ammunition. Under the statutes, handgun ammunition was defined as ammunition principally used in pistols, revolvers, and other concealable firearms, “notwithstanding that the ammunition may also be used in some rifles.” The parties claimed that these provisions were unconstitutionally vague because ordinary people had no way of knowing what ammunition was “principally for use” in handguns. The court agreed, finding that absent defined standards, law enforcement would have discretion to subjectively interpret and apply the law. Gun owners and ammunition vendors risked criminal penalties for a “significant amount of constitutionally protected behavior,” violating their rights. Thus, the court found that the statutes were invalid and barred their enforcement.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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