Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Gun control: Officials set sights on ammunition background checks

Without bullets, slugs or shot, a gun is no deadlier than a steel club. But the question of how to keep firearms' lethal projectiles out of the wrong hands has historically been a low priority for regulators more concerned about the guns themselves.

That could be changing. As the nation debates competing proposals to reduce gun violence, some law enforcement leaders and elected officials argue it's time to examine an area they say is especially devoid of common sense regulation: the buying and selling of ammunition.

They say there is an obvious inconsistency in federal and state law. While it is illegal for certain classes of potentially dangerous people — such as felons and the mentally ill — to possess bullets, nobody's checking. Ammunition buyers don't have to undergo the background checks required of gun purchasers.

"My view of it is that it becomes, in essence, a meaningless law," Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said, referring to the largely unenforced provisions of federal and Florida law that bar convicted criminals from possessing ammunition. "It's a law without any teeth."

A background check for ammunition as well as guns, Gualtieri said, "makes all the sense in the world to me."

Gualtieri is an elected Republican, but his rationale is similar to that of a prominent politician from the other side of the political spectrum. U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, has introduced a bill that would establish universal background checks for ammunition purchases. The law would also increase record-keeping obligations for ammo sales and require retailers to notify the police when one person buys more than 1,000 rounds.

Speaking to the Tampa Bay Times by phone Thursday from Washington, Blumenthal said his proposed legislation was rooted in the concerns expressed to him by police in his home state.

"My bill originated from my conversations with law enforcement officials," Blumenthal said. "They told me, 'Here's a glaring gap in the law.' " Such checks, he added, are "common sense, and common ground for anyone who wants to enforce the existing laws."

Hillsborough County sheriff's Col. Donna Lusczynski said any proposal to expand background checks to include ammunition should be scrutinized to determine that it "doesn't, in fairness, overburden some of the businesses" that sell most of their merchandise to law-abiding customers.

But in light of the existing system's shortcomings, she said, ammo background checks are "something we need to look into."

The massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., might not have been affected by tighter ammo regulation. The 20-year-old gunman at Sandy Hook, Adam Lanza, had no criminal record. But in Pinellas County, another chilling case demonstrates the existing laws' shortcomings.

Benjamin Bishop, an Oldsmar 18-year-old, has been charged with two counts of first-degree murder. Authorities say he killed his mother and her boyfriend in October with a shotgun. Bishop had a criminal record, so he had to have a friend buy the gun for him, detectives say.

The ammunition was a different story. In a jailhouse interview with the Times, Bishop said he twice went to an Oldsmar gun store to buy rounds of ammo for the weapon. He said he was struck by the ease of the transaction compared to the challenges he faced getting a gun.

"I guess you're allowed to buy ammunition without a background check or anything," he said. Bishop's assessment: "It was pretty easy."

While the crime Bishop is charged with committing is unusual, his casual bypassing of ammo restrictions might not be. A 2006 study that tracked ammunition in Los Angeles found that "prohibited possessors" bought more than 10,000 rounds of ammo at legitimate retailers over a six-month period. The study found that 2.6 percent of buyers, on average more than one in 50 people, was barred by law from owning ammunition.

"I'm not interested in entering a debate about banning firearms. It's not going to happen," said George Tita, the study's lead author and a criminology professor at the University of California, Irvine. However, he said, "We have an obligation to keep the firearms, ammunition — whatever anyone is not legally able to possess — out of possession."

Not everyone agrees that background checks are the sensible way to accomplish that goal.

"It's like saying you can't buy gasoline unless you have a car," said Marion Hammer, executive director of the National Rifle Association's state lobbying arm, the Unified Sportsmen of Florida. Hammer said requiring background checks for ammunition would be redundant, because the law already prohibits certain people from owning ammo.

She said requiring background checks for both ammunition as well as guns would be a strain for the state's law enforcement computer systems.

"We have enough laws on the books already without new laws and without overloading the system for ammunition," she said. She continued, facetiously, "Why don't we have background checks on people who want to buy steak knives?"

In Florida, gun background checks are processed through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Agency spokesman Keith Kameg said that each check takes about a minute. The total time it takes a retailer to call the department and receive a response, start to finish, is about four minutes, he said.

"It's a very simple law enforcement tool," Blumenthal said. "The burden is minimal to the government, and the gun shops, and to the individual."

Peter Jamison can be reached at or (727) 445-4157.

Gun control: Officials set sights on ammunition background checks 01/31/13 [Last modified: Thursday, January 31, 2013 11:35pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Last steel beam marks construction milestone for Tom and Mary James' museum


    ST. PETERSBURG — Tom and Mary James on Wednesday signed their names to the last steel beam framing the 105-ton stone mesa that will be built at the entrance of the museum that bears their name: the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art.

    The topping-out ceremony of the James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art was held Wednesday morning in downtown St. Petersburg. Mary James (from left), husband Tom and Mayor Rick Kriseman signed the final beam before it was put into place. When finished, the $55 million museum at 100 Central Ave. will hold up to 500 pieces of the couple's 3,000-piece art collection. [Courtesy of James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art]
  2. Florida's school grades improve as educators get the hang of a new system


    Following a trend, Florida's school grades showed strong gains in the third year after the state changed its grading formula and the standardized tests that students take every year.

    After finding out earlier Wednesday that her school went from a low C to an A,  Bear Creek Elementary principal Willette Houston celebrates with her students in the YMCA After School program at the school in St. Petersburg. Houston is giving a high five to rising fifth grader Jonaven Viera. Rising 4th grader Jonathan Cafaro is in foreground with his back to camera. [CHERIE DIEZ   |   Times]
  3. Tampa Bay woman, 11-year-old boy had sex up to 20 times the year their baby was born, detectives say.


    TAMPA — A woman sexually battered an 11-year-old Brandon boy, got pregnant and raised the baby for three years before a tip led to her arrest, Hillsborough County sheriff's officials said.

    Marissa Mowry, now 25,  had sex as many as 20 times in 2014 with a boy who was 11 when he impregnated her, Hillsborough County detectives allege. [Photo courtesy of Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office]
  4. Heights Public Market to host two Tampa Bay food trucks


    TAMPA — The Heights Public Market announced the first two food trucks for its "rotating stall," which will feature new restaurants every four months. Surf and Turf and Empamamas will be rolled out first.

    Heights Public Market is opening this summer inside the Tampa Armature Works building.
[SKIP O'ROURKE   |   Times file photo]

  5. Mariners lose lefty Drew Smyly to Tommy John surgery


    SEATTLE — Drew Smyly was the centerpiece to one of Seattle's many offseason moves by general manager Jerry Dipoto. He was a priority acquisition as a proven lefty for the rotation the Mariners believed would thrive pitching at Safeco Field.

    Drew Smyly will undergo Tommy John surgery after being diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament. Seattle announced the diagnosis on Wednesday, ending Smyly's hopes of returning during the 2017 season. [AP photo]