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The gun laws of California are some of the strictest in the United States. A Handgun Safety Certificate, obtained by passing a written test, is required for handgun purchases, although there are exemptions to this requirement. (This requirement was extended to long guns on January 1st, 2014.) Handguns sold by dealers must be "California legal" by being listed on the state's roster of handguns certified for sale. Private sales of firearms must be done through a licensed dealer. All firearm sales are recorded by the state, and have a ten-day waiting period. Unlike most other states, California has no provision in its state constitution that explicitly guarantees an individual right to keep and bear arms. The California Supreme Court has maintained that most of California's restrictive gun laws are constitutional based on the fact that the state's constitution does not explicitly guarantee private citizens the right to purchase, possess, or carry firearms. However recent US Supreme Court decisions of Heller (2008) and McDonald (2010) established that the Second Amendment applies to all states within the Union, and many of California's gun laws are now being challenged in the federal courts.
Semi-automatic firearms that the state has classified as assault weapons, .50 BMG caliber rifles, and magazines that can hold more than ten rounds of ammunition may not be sold in California. Possession of automatic firearms, and of short-barreled shotguns and rifles, is generally prohibited.
California is a "may-issue" state for permits to carry concealed guns. The willingness of issuing authorities in California ranges from No-Issue in most urban areas to Shall-Issue in rural counties. However, concealed carry permits are valid statewide, regardless of where they were issued. This creates a situation where residents in presumptively No-Issue locations such as Los Angeles and San Francisco cannot lawfully carry a concealed firearm, but residents from other counties with more permissive CCW issuance policies can lawfully carry within these same jurisdictions. California does not recognize concealed carry permits issued by other states, and non-residents are generally forbidden from obtaining a California concealed carry permit.
California has state preemption for many, but not all, firearms laws. Actual enforcement of California's firearms laws also varies widely across the state. Urban areas, such as the San Francisco and Los Angeles metropolitan areas strictly enforce firearms laws, and some communities within these areas have passed local ordinances that make legally owning a firearm difficult. Meanwhile, some rural jurisdictions narrowly enforce the same firearms laws by prosecuting only those who demonstrate malicious intent, or not enforcing portions of the state's firearms laws at all.
|Subject/Law||Long guns||Handguns||Relevant Statutes||Notes|
|State Permit to Purchase?||No||Partial*||§26500, §12071, §12082||All firearm sales (except long guns more than 50 years old) must be completed through a dealer. *Handgun purchases require a Handgun Safety Certificate and proof of residency unless the individual purchasing the firearm is active duty military. Military reservists must still acquire a Handgun Safety Certificate and proof of residency to purchase a firearm.||Firearm registration?||Yes||Yes||§12025 and §12031||All handgun serial numbers and sales are recorded by the state (registered) in the Department of Justice’s Automated Firearms System. As of January 1, 2014 Long arm serial numbers are now recorded, where as previously only the sale was recorded. While there is no requirement for California residents to register previously owned handguns or firearms with law enforcement, §12025 and §12031 enhance several misdemeanor offenses to felonies if the handgun is not on file in the Department of Justice’s Automated Firearms System. California §12025 states that handguns must be transported unloaded and in a locked container other than the glove compartment or utility box in a motor vehicle. A "locked container" is further defined to mean "a secure container which is fully enclosed and locked by a padlock, key lock, combination lock, or similar locking device." New residents must register handguns (purchased outside of California) with DOJ within 60 days.|
|Owner license required?||No||No||None|
|"Assault weapon" law?||Yes||Yes||§12280, §12285||Illegal to possess, import, or purchase assault weapons and .50 BMG rifles, unless such weapons were acquired by the owner prior to June 1, 1989. Legally defined assault weapons and .50 BMG rifles listed by make and model by the DOJ must be registered. Their sale and transfer is prohibited. Military look-alike rifles that are not chambered for .50 BMG and are not on the DOJ roster are legal to purchase or possess, with some restrictions in configuration – known as "banned features." Active-duty military members residing out of state and assigned to duty in California may bring personally-owned assault weapons into the state. The military member's residence must be in a state that permits private citizens to own and possess assault weapons, and the firearms must be registered with the California Department of Justice prior to the servicemember's arrival in California by submitting the registration form with a copy of the member's Permanent Change of Station (PCS) orders and an authorization letter from the installation commander.|
|Detachable Magazine Capacity Restriction?||Yes||Yes||§12020||It is unlawful for any person to manufacture, cause to be manufactured, keep for sale, or offer or expose for sale, or give or lend, any large-capacity magazine. A large capacity magazine means any ammunition feeding device with the capacity to accept more than 10 rounds, but shall not be construed to include a feeding device that has been permanently altered so that it cannot accommodate more than 10 rounds, a tubular magazine that is contained in a lever-action firearm, or a .22 caliber tube ammunition feeding device. However, the possession of large capacity magazines purchased outside CA (and not imported by means of interstate commerce), is legal except in the city and county of Los Angeles.|
|Carry permits issued?||Yes||Yes||§12050||May issue, depending on jurisdiction. County sheriff's or local Police Chief's discretion, many counties are de facto "no-issue," while others are "shall-issue" in practice. CCW permits valid statewide. Out-of-state permits not valid in California.|
|Open Carry?||Partial*||Partial*||§26350||*Long guns may be carried in unincorporated rural areas where open carry is permitted by local ordinance. In a county with a population of less than 200,000 residents, a permit to carry a handgun "loaded and exposed" may be issued by the county sheriff.|
|State Preemption of local restrictions?||Yes||Yes||§53701 GC||Most but not all local restrictions preempted.|
|Castle Doctrine Law?||Yes||Yes||California never requires a duty to retreat whether in your own home or not. The state acknowledges a legal presumption that an intruder poses a deadly threat if in your own home or property that is owned and controlled by yourself.|
|NFA weapons restricted?||Yes||Yes||§12220, §12020, §12020||Possession of automatic weapons or short-barreled shotguns or rifles prohibited without DOJ "Dangerous Weapons Permit"; permission rarely granted outside of film industry. Suppressors (aka silencers) prohibited. Destructive devices are prohibited unless are designated as curios & relics, in which case a collectors permit can be obtained. The only AOW's that are permitted are smoothbore pistols and firearms with a combination of a smoothbore and rifle barrel.|
|Peaceable Journey laws?||No||No||California courts have ruled that large capacity magazines that are disassembled or LCM parts are legal to possess. Otherwise federal rules are observed.|
California law (§53071 GC) restricts county and city authorities from enacting firearm regulations. This provides for uniform firearm laws and prevents situations found in other states (such as New York) where traveling with an otherwise legal firearm could put a citizen at risk of violating local city ordinances.
Because of their inability to regulate firearms directly some cities, such as Los Angeles, have enacted ammunition regulations.
The buyer of a firearm must fill out an application to purchase a particular gun. The firearms dealer sends the application to the California Department of Justice (DOJ), which performs a background check on the buyer. The approved application is valid for 30 days. There is a 10 day waiting period for the delivery of any firearm.
Sales of firearms from one person to another (private party transfers) must be through a licensed firearms dealer using a Private Party Transfer form. The licensed dealer may charge a $10 fee, in addition to the $25 transfer fee that the state charges. Any number of firearms may be transferred at one time using this method. The dealer submits a Dealer's Record of Sale (DROS) form to the state, and the purchaser must wait 10 days before picking up the guns. Federally defined curio or relic long guns over 50 years old may be sold without going through a licensed dealer.
Handgun purchases, except for private party transfers and Certificate of Eligibility (COE) holders, are limited to one per 30 day period. To purchase a handgun, a buyer must have a Handgun Safety Certificate. This is obtained by passing a written test, given by a Department of Justice certified instructor, on the safe and legal use of handguns. The certificate is valid for five years. A buyer must also perform a Safe Handling Demonstration when taking possession of a handgun. Some individuals are exempt from the Safety Certificate and Handling Demonstration requirements, including active and retired military and law enforcement personnel, hunter safety certificate holders, and concealed carry license holders.
Dealers may not sell any new handgun unless it is listed in the state Department of Justice roster of handguns certified for sale. Listed handguns must include certain mechanical features and pass a set of laboratory tests. Private party transfers, curio/relic handguns, certain single-action revolvers, and pawn/consignment returns are exempt from this requirement.
California is a "may issue" state for concealed carry. A license to carry a concealed firearm may be issued or denied to qualified applicants at the discretion of the County Counsels or City Attorneys in their place of residence. In practice, the attitudes of different sheriffs and police chiefs toward the issuance of permits vary widely and, consequentially, different jurisdictions in California can vary anywhere from de facto shall-issue to de facto no-issue. A permit may be issued, by a county Sheriff or city Chief or head of municipal police, in one of two formats:
California does not recognize any concealed carry permits issued by other states or their political subdivisions. With exceptions for nonresident Active Duty military members permanently stationed within California, state law generally forbids nonresidents from obtaining a California CCW permit.
California law provides that the Sheriff of a county or a city Police Chief may issue a license to carry a concealed weapon upon proof that the person applying is of good moral character and that good cause exists for the issuance. While it is generally believed to be extremely difficult to obtain a license to carry a concealed weapon (CCW) in California, the difficulty varies greatly by city and county of residence. In some rural counties, qualified applicants are usually successful in obtaining a license, while some cities and counties, such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, are extremely restrictive in what they perceive to be "good cause," such as a clear and immediate threat on the applicant's life that cannot be avoided or mitigated by other means. Some jurisdictions have established additional local requirements the applicant must meet before the issuing authority grants a CCW permit. For example, Monterey County requires applicants to obtain a mental health assessment at the applicant's expense as part of that county's permit application process.
In some of the more restrictive cities and counties, licenses tend to be issued mainly to "Friends of the Sheriff" (or Police Chief), celebrities and campaign donors. Some of these departments are now being challenged in Federal Lawsuits, under the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
Some argue that the California system for CCW issuance fosters systematic discrimination of applicants, as it has been publicized that numerous celebrities and government officials have been issued CCW licenses in cities and counties where the general public have been consistently denied. CCW issuance is also extremely low in areas where the population has a high concentration of minorities and minority applicants are more frequently denied, causing some to allege institutional racism.
Carrying a concealed firearm without a permit is a very serious misdemeanor with a minimum penalty of 90 days in jail. It may be prosecuted as a felony if any one of over a dozen specific circumstances exist, such as carry by a felon, carry in relation to gang activity, carry with the intent to commit a violent crime, etc.
Open carry of loaded or unloaded firearms in public is generally prohibited, although open carry may be allowed in unincorporated rural areas under certain circumstances.
Personal possession (i.e., carry) of a loaded firearm is prohibited in incorporated areas (such as inside city limits) or prohibited areas of unincorporated territory without a license to carry or other exemption provided for by law. A license to carry "loaded and exposed" may be issued by a Police Chief or County Sheriff in a county with population of less than 200,000 persons at the last census. No license or permit is required to openly carry a loaded firearm in unincorporated areas where discharge is not prohibited by local ordinance.
Carrying a loaded magazine separate from the handgun is also not prohibited under the penal code (Subdivision (g) of California Penal Code §12031 defines what constitutes a loaded weapon).
In the case of People v. Clark (1996) a shotgun shell attached to the shotgun, although not chambered or placed in a position where it was able to be fired, was declared to be legal under California law and the charge of having a loaded firearm against Clark was dismissed.
Prior to January 1, 2012, it was legal to openly carry an unloaded handgun in public. In October 2011, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that modifies the law on openly carrying an unloaded firearm to match the restrictions for openly carrying a loaded weapon. Legislation was later signed by Governor Brown to expand these restrictions to long guns and shotguns.
When being transported, handguns must be unloaded and in a locked fully enclosed container other than the glove box or any console attached to the vehicle. The trunk of a car is considered to be a locked container but a glove box or "utility box" is specifically forbidden. If one believes he or she is within a "gun-free school zone" (area surrounding 1,000 feet from the edge of school grounds which teaches any grade from kindergarten to 12th grade) then the handgun must be locked in a fully enclosed container. Failure to lock up a handgun while in a school zone is a violation of federal and state law.
Long guns (rifles, shotguns) must be unloaded when transported in a vehicle. There is no requirement for a locked container with the exception of long guns considered to be "assault weapons". Federal law requires locking containers when inside of a "gun-free school zone." The constitutionality of the federal Gun-Free School Zone Act is in question due to the U.S. v. Lopez ruling.
Assault weapons, as defined by California law, must always be transported in locked containers and may only be transported under certain circumstances
Firearms must be kept locked up when children may be present. The 2008 California Dangerous Weapons Control Law modified California Penal Code §12035 defining criminal storage of a firearm as keeping "any loaded firearm within any premises that are under his or her custody or control and he or she knows or reasonably should know that a child is likely to gain access to the firearm." A person may be charged with a crime, if he or she keeps a loaded firearm, and the child takes the firearm to a public place or causes injury.
It is illegal to sell a firearm that the state has defined as an "assault weapon", and which has been listed in the DOJ roster of prohibited firearms, which includes many military look-alike semi-automatic rifles and .50 caliber BMG rifles. DOJ rostered firearms may be legally possessed if already registered with the state prior to January 2005. Military look-alike firearms that are not listed on the DOJ roster of prohibited firearms, known as "off-list lowers", are legal to own and possess, as long as state laws concerning configuration are followed. It is illegal to import, sell, give, trade, or lend a magazine that holds more than 10 rounds of ammunition, except for fixed tubular magazines for lever-action rifles and .22 caliber rifles; however, the possession of such magazines is legal. It is illegal to possess an automatic firearm or a short-barreled shotgun or rifle without permission from the Department of Justice; such permission is generally not granted. Enforcement of the Assault Weapons Ban varies widely throughout the state. Authorities in most urban areas will prosecute someone for merely possessing a banned assault weapon regardless of intent, whereas officials in some rural counties have either refused to enforce the ban entirely or only prosecute those in possession of banned weapons who demonstrate malicious intent. It must be noted that the latter statement applies only to county sheriffs and local police, as the California Highway Patrol strictly enforces the Assault Weapons Ban and will arrest those in violation of the ban, regardless of where in the state the violation occurs.
The Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989, its subsequent augmentation in 1999, and the .50 Caliber BMG Regulation Act of 2004 have led to many restrictions on semi-automatic firearms. In addition to a lengthy list of specific firearms that are banned by name, the following firearms are banned by characteristic (from Penal Code §12276.1) :
In addition, (Penal Code §12001.5) bans, by definition, short-barreled shotguns and short-barreled rifles. Defined in Penal Code §12020; a short-barreled shotgun is defined as a firearm (designed, redesigned, or altered) to fire a fixed shotgun shell and has a barrel or barrels of less than 18 inches or an overall length of less than 26 inches. A short-barreled rifle is defined as a semiautomatic, center fire rifle with a barrel length of less than 16 inches or an overall length of less than 26 inches.
Methods of obtaining particular styles of firearms similar to assault weapons, have been achieved by design changes by gun parts manufacturers to allow a person to obtain a style of rifle used in sport shooting and competitions. One of the most common modifications is a "bullet button", which modifies a rifle so that the magazine is not removable without the use of a tool (a bullet was defined as a tool per state law), which presses a button that a finger alone cannot press. Weapons with this feature no longer have a "detachable magazine" within the assault weapons definition, and therefore may be exempt depending on the other requirements. As certain portions of firearms (the lower receiver, or "lower" for short, which is legally considered to be the firearm) are banned by model name under California state law, multiple requirements are made to allow a rifle to comply under state law.
The recent court case Haynie v Pleasanton validated that a Bullet Button is legal and guns that have one installed do not qualify as assault weapons.
Many tools have been devised to make it easier and faster to drop the magazine from the gun, as California law states that you must use an external tool not attached to the gun. A popular tool, the "magnet button", which sticks on the bullet button, has not been determined to be illegal. The use of illegal buttons may cause the weapon to be determined to be an assault weapon, which is a felony and could result in jail time and/or confiscation of the owner's entire gun collection, and a lifetime ban under federal law from possessing firearms in the future.
A few exceptions to the assault weapons ban exist. The first is for those who owned listed assault weapons before the 1989 assault weapons ban went into effect are allowed to keep such firearms; owners were required to register their assault weapons with the California Department of Justice by a deadline established in the assault weapons ban legislation.
The second exception allows non-resident active duty military members to bring their assault weapons into California when permanently assigned to a military installation within the state. Prior to arrival, the military member must submit a registration form and a copy of his or her assignment orders and an authorization letter from the installation commander to the DOJ, and the firearm(s) in question are legal to obtain and possess in his or her home state.
Resident police officers in California may also own "assault weapons", with permission of their police chief and the California Department of Justice. As of 2011, police officers may keep their "assault weapons" and "high capacity magazines" after retirement or separation from the force. No permission is needed for police to purchase and possess "high capacity magazines".
Firearms that would have been classified as assault weapons but are used for Olympic and International competitions are exempt. There is a list of the exempt firearms, and new firearms can be added to the list if needed by USA Shooting, the governing body for Olympic and International Shooting Sport competition.
Finally, assault weapons intended for use in the film industry are allowed, with approval from the Department of Justice.
Because the states that neighbor California have more permissive gun laws, it is conceivable that one may travel through California with banned weapons to reach other states (i.e., traveling from Oregon to Arizona). There are limited federal protections under the Firearm Owners Protection Act for nonresidents traveling through California with firearms that meet the state's assault weapon criteria that would otherwise be legal for private citizens to own or possess under federal law. First, the weapon must be legal for the traveler to own in his or her home state. Additionally, the weapon in question must be unloaded with the firearm and ammunition locked in separate cases and placed in an area of the vehicle that is not easily accessible, such as the trunk of a car or bed of a truck. Finally, the traveler should traverse the state by the shortest route and make the minimum number of stops practicable.
There are also numerous other laws, such as prohibition on possession of tracer ammunition, handgun armor piercing ammunition, .50 BMG rifles, and the sale or transfer of magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds. All rifles are normally exempt for the original owner if properly registered at the time of the acts which prohibited them.
In addition, the law states that any weapon that is part of the AR-15 series or AK series is also an assault weapon, regardless of manufacturer; this dates back to 1989 ban, and was confirmed in the Kasler v. Lockyer decision, filed 6/29/2000. However, the California Supreme Court declared the identification of assault weapon by series membership to be too dubious and difficult for the average citizen or even trial court to make without specific and clear model identification guidelines. The court thus set some specific requirements for the "series" identification portion of the law in their ruling of Harrott v. County of Kings, filed 6/28/2001. This decision required banned firearms to be specifically listed by make and model in California Code of Regulations (the "Kasler list"); it did not address assault weapons defined by features. Thus, only firearms specifically listed by exact combination of manufacturer and model name, or conforming to explicit exterior characteristics (such as a pistol grip or folding stock in combination with a detachable magazine) can be banned under current legislation.
Once it was realized the California Department of Justice (CA DOJ) had not updated the "Kasler list" in the five years after the Harrott decision, many Californians found they could legally purchase and possess AR and AK rifles not yet officially identified as "series" members. As of February 2006, over 10,000 "off-list" receivers (frames) for such rifles have been legally imported to, and purchased within, California. The only requirement for these receivers are that the combination of make and model is not explicitly listed as banned, and as long as the owner does not add certain "characteristic features" turning the firearm into an assault weapon (i.e. pistol grip, flash suppressor, etc.). These characteristic features can be used, however, if a nondetachable 10-round (or less) magazine, conforming in the converse to the California Code of Regulations §5469, formerly §978.20, definition of detachable magazine, is affixed to such "off-list" rifles. These off-list rifles can also be used without a pistol grip, folding stock or flash hider, in which case it is legal to own and use them with detachable magazines. (California Code of Regulations §978.20 was changed without regulatory effect renumbering §978.20 to §5469 filed 6-28-2006)
The CA DOJ produced a report from the Ferranto Commission in response, intimating that this list will be updated in early 2006; as of December 2006, it had not done so. On February 1, 2006, the CA DOJ also issued a controversial memorandum about this subject; critics say the described actions are not founded or supported within statutory law in Penal Code §§12275–12290. This memo stated that once off-list "series" firearms are declared and registered as assault weapons, they will not be able to have characteristic features added or fixed magazines removed. This is being challenged by pro-gun groups, since there is no criminal violation in the California Penal Code for adding or changing features to a legally acquired, registered assault weapon.
On November 8, 2005, San Francisco voters enacted Proposition H, a total ban on the manufacture, sale, transfer or distribution of firearms or ammunition in San Francisco, as well as a ban on the possession of handguns within the city by San Francisco residents (excepting peace officers, security guards and the like). The ban did not prohibit possession of weapons other than handguns, nor did it prohibit residents of other cities from possessing handguns in San Francisco. While this measure made San Francisco the third major U.S. city, following Washington, D.C. and Chicago, to enact a ban on handguns, San Francisco's ban extended further, not implementing a grandfather clause found in Chicago's and Washington D.C.'s laws that protected existing gun owners. Proposition H stated that handgun owners in San Francisco must turn over their handguns to the police by the end of March 2006, have them confiscated, or move outside the city limits. In June 2006, Judge James Warren of the San Francisco County Superior Court struck down Proposition H, asserting that under California law local officials do not have the authority to ban handgun ownership by law-abiding citizens. On January 9, 2008, a California appellate court upheld Judge Warren's decision. The National Rifle Association (NRA) opposed the ban from its inception.
In May 2013 Los Angeles banned the possession of magazines that can hold more than ten rounds of ammunition. In November of the same year, the city of Sunnyvale passed a similar ordinance along with three other firearm related restrictions. The new ordinance requires city residents to "dispose, donate, or sell" any magazine capable of holding more than ten rounds within a proscribed period of time once the measure took affect. Measure C also requires: 1) city residents to report firearm theft to the police within 48 hours, 2) residents to lock up their guns at home, and 3) gun dealers to keep logs of ammunition sales. The city of San Francisco then passed similar ordinances a short time later.