America’s Ammunition Crisis: Few Laws Exist to Prevent Purchases by Dangerous People Online and in Stores

Posted on July 30, 2012

Since the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado on July 20, 2012, where James Holmes killed 12 people and injured 58 more, many have expressed shock at the ease with which the gunman acquired his arsenal: a military-style assault rifle, a shotgun, two handguns, a 100-round ammunition magazine, and 6,000 rounds of ammunition.

While the shooter purchased his firearms legally at local gun stores, he ordered his ammunition cache – 3,000 rounds each of handgun and rifle ammunition and 350 shotgun shells, as well as the 100-round magazine – from online retailers over the course of several months prior to the shooting. This ammunition, which was also purchased legally, cost him around $3,000.1

In the aftermath of the Aurora shooting, important questions are being asked about the availability of ammunition, both over the counter and online. While America’s federal gun laws are weak, laws regulating the sale of ammunition are virtually nonexistent. As the facts below reveal, it is far too easy for dangerous people – including convicted criminals – to acquire as much ammunition as they desire. Serious reforms are desperately needed.

statistics on ammunition sales

Federal Laws Regulating Ammunition Sales Are Weak

Federal law prohibits convicted felons and other dangerous people from acquiring both guns and ammunition, but the laws otherwise treat guns and ammunition very differently. Under federal law, a prospective gun purchaser must pass a background check; no background check is required to buy ammunition. A firearms dealer must keep a record of the sale of a firearm that includes the purchaser’s information; no records are kept for the sale of ammunition.

Federal law also regulates mail-order or online firearm sales.2 Any firearm purchased online from a licensed dealer must be sent to a dealer located near the buyer for pickup after the buyer passes a background check. Similarly, any firearm purchased online from a private seller located outside of the buyer’s state must be sent to a dealer located in the buyer’s state, where a background check is completed.3 There are no similar restrictions for ammunition sales, and ammunition purchased interstate can be shipped directly to the buyer’s door.

Before 1986, Federal Ammunition Laws Were Significantly Stronger

Under the Gun Control Act of 1968, anyone “engaged in the business” of selling ammunition was required to obtain a federal license and to maintain records of ammunition sales.4 Under the Act, mail-order ammunition sales across state lines were prohibited; retailers, importers, or manufacturers could only transport or ship ammunition to other licensed retailers, importers, or manufacturers. Unfortunately, these provisions were deleted in 1986 when Congress adopted the so-called Firearm Owners Protection Act, which was backed by the NRA.5,6

Only a Handful of States Regulate the Sale of Ammunition

Because federal laws are so weak, state laws regulating ammunition are critical. Unfortunately, most states have not adopted significant measures to regulate the sale ammunition.

Ammo Sellers Must Be Licensed

Massachusetts
Washington (only if selling firearms)
District of Columbia

Ammo Purchasers Must Have Permits

Illinois
Massachusetts
New Jersey
District of Columbia

Ammo Sellers Must Retain Sales Records

New Jersey
District of Columbia

Ammo Sales Must Be Completed Face-to-Face

Massachusetts
District of Columbia

California: A California statute adopted in 2009 would require all handgun ammunition vendors to keep records of each purchaser of handgun ammunition and would require handgun ammunition to be delivered in face-to-face transactions. Unfortunately, the statute was challenged, and, in 2011, a Fresno Superior Court judge issued an injunction against enforcement of the law, holding that the definition of “handgun ammunition” was impermissibly vague.7 That decision is currently being appealed.

Ammunition Sales Online: Few Rules, Serious Dangers

The absences of strong federal and state ammunition restrictions mean that, in most states, dangerous people, including convicted criminals and the mentally ill, may easily acquire as much ammunition as they want, no questions asked. Absent pre-purchase screening, sales records can provide law enforcement with an important tool to identify purchases by dangerous people.8 Without recordkeeping, law enforcement has no way of knowing how much ammunition is being sold, or to whom, until it is too late.

These problems are magnified with the rise of online sales, as purchasers in most states may order large volumes of ammunition delivered straight to their doors, without any verification that they are legally allowed to do so. As the New York Times wrote, describing James Holmes’ ammunition purchases, “It was pretty much as easy as ordering a book from Amazon.”9

Sadly, the Aurora shooting is not the first documented instance of a mass shooting involving online purchases. In 2007, Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and injured 25 others after purchasing one of his firearms and at least five ammunition clips online.10 The killer in the 2008 Northern Illinois University mass shooting, which left five students dead, also purchased magazines online, as did the shooter who killed or injured 13 people at a Pittsburgh area health club in 2009.11

Something needs to be done now to prevent future tragedies involving online sales.

The Stop Online Ammunition Sales Act

On July 30, 2012, U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg and Representative Carolyn McCarthy announced their intention to introduce legislation to restore federal regulation of ammunition sales.12 The Stop Online Ammunition Sales Act would require ammunition dealers to be licensed and to maintain ammunition sales records, both of which were provisions of the Gun Control Act of 1968 that were repealed by Congress in 1986. Under the proposal, dealers would also be obligated to report the sale of over 1,000 ammunition rounds to any single purchaser within five consecutive business days and buyers would be required to present photo identification when purchasing ammunition.

  1. Jack Healy, Suspect Bought Large Stockpile of Rounds Online, N.Y. Times, July 26, 2012. []
  2. For a comprehensive discussion of issues related to firearm sales online, see the City of New York’s excellent report, Point, Click, Fire: An Investigation of Illegal Online Gun Sales. []
  3. Federal law does not, however, regulate the private in-state sales of firearms, online or otherwise, although several states require background checks either for all private sales or for sales at gun shows. For more, see our summaries of federal law on private sales and gun shows. []
  4. Gun Control Act of 1968, Pub. L. No. 90-618, 82 Stat. 1213 (1968). []
  5. Firearms Owners’ Protection Act, Pub. L. No. 99-308, 100 Stat. 449 (1986). See Michael C. Bender, NRA Enabled Bullets-By-Mail Used By Colorado Shooting Suspect, Bloomberg, July 31, 2012. []
  6. In the mid-1990s, Congress, led by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and then-Representative Charles Schumer, debated several proposals to regulate ammunition. The most far reaching of these bills would have reinstated the ban on mail-order sales of ammunition, brought ammunition under the Brady Act (requiring background checks at the time of transfer), limited the number of rounds a person could own, required ammunition dealer licensing with high licensing fees, placed strict sales restrictions on specific types of handgun ammunition disproportionately used in crime, and imposed high taxes on all ammunition. To date, none of these proposals has been adopted. For more on the 1990s proposals, see Brendan J. Healey, Plugging the Bullet Holes in U.S. Gun Law: An Ammunition-Based Proposal for Tightening Gun Control, 32 J. Marshall L. Rev. 1 (Fall 1998). []
  7. Parker v. State of California, Case No. 10CECG02116 JH, (Super. Ct. Fresno, Filed June 17, 2010). []
  8. Law enforcement in Sacramento and Los Angeles successfully used local ammunition recordkeeping ordinances to identify and prosecute felons who purchased ammunition. Between January 16 and December 31, 2008, the Sacramento ordinance led to the identification of 156 prohibited persons who had purchased ammunition, 124 of whom had prior felony convictions, 48 search warrants and 26 additional probation or parole searches. In addition, the ordinance led to 109 felony charges, 10 federal court indictments, 37 felony convictions and 17 misdemeanor convictions. The ordinance allowed law enforcement to seize a total of 84 firearms, including seven assault weapons, and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Similarly, the Los Angeles ordinance led to 30 investigations, 15 search warrants, nine arrests, and the confiscation of 24 handguns, 12 shotguns, and nine rifles that were illegally possessed between 2004 and the first half of 2006, as well as 39 investigations in 2007, and at least 24 investigations in 2008. For more information, see our model law regulating firearms dealers and ammunition sellers, intended for use by local governments in California. []
  9. Jack Healy, Suspect Bought Large Stockpile of Rounds Online, N.Y. Times, July 26, 2012. []
  10. Gregg Keizer, Virginia Tech Killer Bought Supplies Online, Computerworld, Apr 23, 2007. []
  11. Gym shooter bought from sites that sold to college gunmen, CNN, Aug. 7, 2009. []
  12. Press Release, Lautenberg, McCarthy, Advocates Announce New Legislation to Effectively Ban Online Ammo Sales, July 30, 2012. []