Technically speaking, guns don’t kill people — bullets do. Yet we rarely hear about “bullet control.” Ammunition regulation hasn’t been a top priority for gun reformers and lawmakers, and public opinion polls and surveys rarely include questions about it.

But a reader recently asked us: “Why aren’t bullets regulated like pharmaceuticals, with a database and license to purchase that will tip off law enforcement when large quantities are purchased?”

First, a quick fact-check: While the reader’s question presupposes that police are notified if a patient is prescribed a lot of pills in a short time period, that’s not actually the case. Prescriptions for controlled substances, including opioids, are logged in state-run databases that can be accessed by doctors, pharmacists, and law enforcement looking to stem substance misuse. But bulk purchases don’t automatically trigger a police response.

The reader is correct that in all but a handful of states, you don’t need a license to purchase bullets in the same way that patients need prescriptions for controlled substances or to show ID when buying regulated medications. In fact, in most of the country it’s harder to buy Sudafed than it is to buy ammunition. But that wasn’t always the case. Here’s what we learned. 

How are bullets regulated now?

Weakly. In much of the country, you can walk into a store and buy a box of ammunition, no questions asked. Federal law is next to nonexistent, and few states fill the gap.

Federal law

If a person is prohibited from owning guns, under federal law they’re also prohibited from owning bullets.

But there are effectively no processes in place to identify prohibited individuals before they purchase ammunition. Sales are exempt from the federal background check system. And there are no regulations requiring ammunition sellers to maintain sales records, obtain licenses, or report high-volume sales to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

While federal law bans the sale or transfer of ammunition to anyone under the age of 18, the law doesn’t require sellers to verify a buyer’s age, either online or in person. The 17-year-old perpetrator of a 2018 rampage at Santa Fe High School in Texas was able to buy bullets from the online ammunition marketplace without being asked for ID.

It seems like a strange omission: If guns and ammunition carry the same criminal penalties, why don’t we run background checks for both?

The original Brady background check system just wasn’t built for that, partly as a result of political compromise, said Steve Lindley, a program manager at the gun reform group Brady and a former chief of the California Department of Justice’s Bureau of Firearms. Also, vetting every ammo buyer would overwhelm the system, as bullets are expendable and purchased far more often than guns. “I just don’t think they currently have the ability to make a system to run 150, 250 million background checks on an annual basis,” Lindley said.

One type of ammunition that is heavily regulated under federal law is armor-piercing rounds. The Law Enforcement Officers Protection Act of 1986 bans the manufacture, importation, and civilian sale of bullets of a certain size and composition that may be used in a handgun and are capable of penetrating protective vests worn by police. 

State laws

Absent federal regulation, it’s up to states to regulate bullets. Only a few have, according to Giffords Law Center, the legal arm of the gun reform group.

Seven states regulate ammunition buyers. Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., require people to obtain firearm purchasing permits in order to buy bullets. California and New York require background checks on bullet sales, but so far only California has implemented them. New York’s ammunition background check law was enacted in 2013, but the program was suspended because of technological and bureaucratic hurdles. (A 2022 law requires ammunition background checks to finally commence in September.) A Rhode Island statute requires bullet buyers to get a handgun safety certificate or complete a hunter education course.

Seven states regulate ammunition sellers. California, Massachusetts, New York, Washington State, and Washington, D.C., require a license to sell bullets, while New Jersey requires anyone selling bullets to have a permit to purchase or carry a handgun. California, New Jersey, and New York also require ammunition sellers to maintain sales records. Alaska, California, Hawaii, and Massachusetts either regulate or prohibit ammunition sales from online vendors, as do Chicago, New York City, Washington, D.C., and several cities in Illinois.

Bullets used to be more heavily regulated.

The Gun Control Act of 1968, enacted in the wake of prominent political assassinations, required ammunition sellers to obtain federal licenses and keep sales records. It also banned interstate sales of bullets through the mail. But several of the law’s ammunition-related provisions were undone 18 years later by the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act of 1986, which the National Rifle Association has referred to as “the law that saved gun rights.” 

FOPA, the same law that banned the civilian sale of most machine guns and prohibited the creation of a national firearm registry, also removed the requirement that ammo sellers obtain federal licenses; said licensed dealers didn’t have to keep ammunition sales records anymore; and eliminated the ban on interstate mail-order ammunition sales, so you don’t need a license to ship bullets.

The NRA pushed hard for FOPA, mounting a $1.6 million lobbying and advertising campaign. The gun group called the ammunition recordkeeping requirement “a massive amount of paperwork that served no law enforcement purpose.” Gun industry opposition isn’t surprising, since ammo is a lucrative business: 8.7 billion rounds were produced for the consumer market in 2018, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry’s trade group. The ammunition industry supports more than 11,000 domestic jobs.

The NRA’s surrogates in Congress reached the same conclusions. While debating FOPA in 1984, the Senate Judiciary Committee determined that requiring a license for “persons who are engaged in the business of dealing in ammunition only … was not necessary to facilitate legitimate Federal law enforcement interests,” according a bulletin published by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, as the agency was then known. 

Likewise, the ATF said it “recognized” that the recordkeeping requirement for bullet sales had “no substantial law enforcement value.” Mark Jones, a former ATF special agent who held various supervisory positions before retiring in 2011, blames the agency’s “twofold” mission: “One is to enforce the law and regulate the industry, the other is to support the industry and help them be successful. I don’t think they would have been necessarily willing to buck up against any of that.”

U.S. Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey, who has tried for seven years to get a federal ammo regulation bill passed, told The Trace: “The result of decades of marketing and lobbying by firearms manufacturers and their political allies in government created a tinderbox. The last 30 years or so we’ve been experiencing the consequences of those decisions.”

Is bullet control effective at reducing gun violence?

It’s hard to say, since so few states actually regulate it, and studies on the practice are scarce. But advocates say it could save lives.

“If you’re able to meaningfully regulate ammunition, you’re able to have another opportunity to prevent individuals who would do harm with firearms from accessing the ammunition that makes those firearms deadly,” said Christian Heyne, vice president of policy and programs at Brady. “We can have a dramatic impact on public safety.”

Bullet control has shown to be effective in flagging prohibited gun purchasers. An ordinance enacted in Sacramento, California, in 2007 that required ammunition dealers to maintain sales records and share them with local police led to the conviction of nearly 250 people over the next five years who shouldn’t have had guns because of felonies, warrants, and other prohibiting factors. A similar ordinance in Los Angeles also resulted in the arrest of prohibited purchasers, who accounted for nearly 3 percent of all ammunition transactions in the city, researchers found.

Bullet control advocates say requiring federally licensed gun dealers to alert the ATF about large ammo purchases, as our reader inquired about, could prevent mass shootings. Bulk ammo buys have preceded several rampages, including the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting and the 2017 Las Vegas massacre, and stockpiles of bullets have been found at the homes of people who have threatened violence or are prohibited from having guns. “We’re missing a huge opportunity to stop things like that,” Jones said.

What are the different approaches to regulating ammunition? 

One is to levy hefty taxes on ammunition as a way of discouraging its use, a concept immortalized in a bit by the comedian Chris Rock: “If a bullet cost $5,000,” he said, “there’d be no more innocent bystanders.”

In 1993, U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York proposed adding a 10,000 percent tax on the wholesale price of hollow-point bullets, which would have raised the retail price of a 20-cartridge pack from $24 to $2,400. He also proposed taxing handgun ammunition at 50 percent, up from 11 percent. Moynihan’s intent was clear: “It is time the Federal Government began taxing handgun ammunition used in crime out of existence,” he said at the time. His plan failed, and ammunition taxes are still federally capped at 11 percent. 

Subsequent federal efforts to raise the ammunition tax — and earmark proceeds for anti-violence groups, government research, and policing grants — failed in 2018 and 2020. A Republican-backed bill in the last Congress that would have repealed altogether the excise taxes on guns and ammunition failed, too.

State efforts to levy taxes on bullets have also sputtered, even with Democrat-led legislatures. An effort in New York that would have raised ammo taxes by just a few cents stalled last session, and California lawmakers rejected an 11 percent excise tax on bullets in both 2021 and 2022. 

Some cities have been successful, including Seattle and Tacoma, Washington, which in recent years imposed excise taxes of between 2 to 5 cents per bullet, depending on the caliber. The policy has withstood court challenges, too. A similar ordinance in Cook County, Illinois, where Chicago is located, was struck down in 2021, but lawmakers promptly amended the policy to put it back on the books.

After the 2012 Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting, perpetrated by someone who bought thousands of rounds through an online retailer, Democrats introduced bills that would have restored the federal ammunition regulations that were eliminated by FOPA in 1986, including dealer licensing and sales tracking. The measures, which ultimately failed, would have also implemented background checks for purchasers, mandated the reporting of bulk purchases to law enforcement, and banned online sales.

In 2015, the ATF published proposed guidelines on armor-piercing bullets that would have eliminated a longstanding exemption for M855 “green tip” ammunition used in AR-15 rifles. The public comment period would have explored whether the bullets, increasingly used in AR-15 pistols, were still “primarily intended for sporting purposes” and thus exempted from the ban. This prompted outcry from gun rights advocates and lobbyists, who called it an underhanded attempt to ban “widely used” rounds. Less than a month later, the ATF backpedaled, clarifying that it had only been a proposal, not a final determination. 

Are there current efforts to regulate ammunition?

A couple of measures that stalled in the last Congress are expected to be reintroduced this session. The Ammunition Background Check Act, also known as Jaime’s Law, was first unveiled after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and is named for Jaime Guttenberg, one of the victims. It would require background checks on ammunition sales, an issue that Jamie’s father, Fred Guttenberg, calls the “holy grail of solving the gun violence problem.”

“Someone who can’t walk into a store and buy a gun can walk into a store, buy bullets, and nobody checks,” he said. “If you close that loophole, that is something that will save lives immediately. Because the gun is nothing more than a paperweight without that ammunition.”

Another bill, the Stop Online Ammunition Sales Act, would require ammunition sellers to be licensed, ban online sales, and require dealers to report sales of more than 1,000 bullets to the same person in a five-day period to state law enforcement. Its sponsor, Watson Coleman, the New Jersey congresswoman, first introduced the legislation after taking office in 2015.

“It was an outgrowth of my frustration with the mass killings made possible through the stocking of large amounts of ammunition that were available to consumers without any accountability,” she told The Trace. “I also believed it placed accountability on those who sell ammunition.”

Watson Coleman says she doesn’t know why bullet control isn’t a bigger part of the gun reform agenda. “I believe weapons of war like the AR-15 don’t belong in the hands of everyday citizens, but sadly the conversation often ends there. Tackling the epidemic of gun violence and mass shootings will require a more comprehensive approach.”

Heyne, of Brady, said, “I think part of the problem is that people have been asking why guns haven’t been regulated for so long, and ammunition, because there’s so much more of it, seemed like it’s been a bigger hurdle.”

What are the arguments against bullet control?

Gun rights advocates say that making bullets harder to get will only result in inexperienced shooters. “It means more people can’t really practice so now people are worse shots,” one Redditor commented. A gun owner in Washington State, where two cities have imposed excise taxes on ammunition, called it “punishment tax, pure and simple.”

Gun owners say hoarding bullets doesn’t necessarily portend future violence. Recreational shooters and hunters can go through ammunition quickly, and buying in bulk can save money. “Stockpiling goes on all the time, driven by the subtleties of a vast and dynamic commodity market,” Navy veteran and gun owner Adam Weinstein wrote in a commentary for The Trace in 2015.

The NRA recently told USA TODAY that flagging bulk purchases of bullets to law enforcement, as our reader suggested, would unfairly target competitive shooters, who “easily go through a thousand rounds, or more, of ammunition in a single day.” 

“The disingenuous argument that the industry makes is basically, ‘This isn’t important, we shouldn’t do this,” said Jones, the former ATF special agent. “But the law says that it’s the same penalty to possess bullets as it is to possess firearms. If the law says it’s a 10-year violation to possess the stuff in your pocket, even if you don’t have a gun to go with it, Congress’s intent was to make it so.”

Some gun owners who support stricter regulations for firearms draw the line at ammunition. When an ammo sales recordkeeping requirement went into effect in New York last year, an upstate resident said, “I agree on background checks with the guns, OK, but ammunition, that’s getting pretty invasive.” 

The general public is more supportive of bullet control: 80 percent of registered voters support background checks on ammunition sales, according to a June 2022 survey of registered voters by Fox News, demonstrating the policy’s bipartisan appeal.

Can’t people just make their own bullets?

Yes. The practice, called reloading, involves filling used cartridges with gunpowder. There’s no federal regulation or oversight for homemade ammunition. Only Maryland regulates the practice, requiring anyone who stores more than five pounds of gunpowder for the purposes of making homemade ammunition to obtain a license.

The reloading industry is “robust,” according to Jones, who has been making his own bullets for years, but it doesn’t compare to the size of the commercial ammo market, he said.