SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Zachary Berg usually buys guns and ammunition with relative ease. After all, he's a Sutter County sheriff's deputy and needs them for his job. California's stringent gun laws usually don't apply to him.
But Berg couldn't buy shotgun shells at his local hardware store in Yuba City prior to a duck hunting trip last month. He was rejected under California's stringent ammunition background check program that took effect July 1, because his personal information didn't match what state officials had in their database.
Berg was one of tens of thousands of Californians who have been turned away from buying ammunition at firearms and sporting goods stores, even though they appear to be lawfully able to do so, a Sacramento Bee review of state data shows. Between July 1 and November, nearly 1 in every 5 ammunition purchases was rejected by the California Department of Justice, the figures show.
Of the 345,547 ammunition background checks performed, only 101 stopped the buyer because he or she was a "prohibited person" who can't legally possess ammunition, according to state Department of Justice data.
Yet another 62,000 ammunition purchases were rejected as well. Those people left empty-handed because their personal information hadn't been entered into the state's system, or the information on their identification cards didn't match what officials had entered into the California gun registry database, which retail sellers must review when they do the ammunition background check.
"It's a little ironic the fact I'm a deputy that I can't buy ammunition," Berg said. "But at the same time, anybody else who's legally allowed to, they shouldn't be denied based on address (errors). ... It's just crazy."
The rejection numbers are detailed in court documents Attorney General Xavier Becerra's office filed in U.S. District Court in San Diego in response to a pending lawsuit that's seeking to overturn to the new gun laws. The suit was filed by the California Rifle & Pistol Association. The case's lead plaintiff is Kim Rhode, an Olympic shooter and National Rifle Association board member.
Becerra's office declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation. But in court filings, the agency said the state's rejection rate declined from 19% in July to 15% in October, a downward trend the agency says will continue "as familiarity with the system among ammunition vendors and consumers increases." Becerra's office also noted that ammunition purchasers have had better luck on the second try. For instance, 44% of purchasers who had been rejected in July were able to buy ammunition by November.
But to gun rights advocates, the mass denials are confirmation of their long-standing assertion that liberal gun control laws disproportionately burden law-abiding gun owners who follow the rules, even as criminals continue to acquire guns and ammunition without jumping through the regulatory hoops.
"The restrictions are not going on criminals. It's not targeting criminal misuses. It's targeting otherwise law-abiding persons in the way that they can exercise their rights," said Daniel Reid, the western regional director for the National Rifle Association. "You're seeing a handful of denials for prohibited persons and all these other people are being denied for clerical errors or administrative type issues."