Making sure you’re compliant with California’s gun laws requires a bit of a learning curve.
Compared to the rest of the country, California has a myriad of different laws and procedures for firearm owners. So much so, that many living outside the state just know California as “that place where they have a bunch of restrictive rules”. And they do.
Here are some of the actual circumstances California gun owners face.
BANNED OR ILLEGAL WEAPONS
Cane guns, containers that camouflage firearms, firearms not instantly identifiable as firearms, magazines with a capacity of over 10 rounds, short-barreled shotguns or rifles, multi-burst trigger activator (bump stock), undetectable firearms, pistols without a bore, zip guns, and wallet guns.
Not too bad here. Many of these restrictions exist in other states.
HANDGUNS CERTIFIED FOR SALE
If you’re wondering if a firearm is legal for sale in California, there’s a handy listing. But you have to remember a few caveats.
There are firearms that are legal in the rest of the country, but need to have special versions manufactured to be California compliant. For example, the Smith & Wesson Shield is one of the more popular everyday carry guns in the United States. But a special “Cali-compliant” version exists (with an added loaded chamber indicator) for sale to meet the requirements of California.
Also, you’ll want to check your firearms against that Handguns Certified For Sale listing. There are foibles here, too. For instance, the Glock 17 Gen 3 is legal in California, but the Glock 17 Gen 4 is NOT. Why? Mostly timing and politics. Or, maybe the dangerous-looking finger grooves in this photo of the Gen 4. The point is that you can’t just assume your gun is legal for sale.
1. Aftermarket changes or modifications made to certain single-shot pistols (changing upper receivers, connecting gas tubes) may be considered “manufacturing” these pistols into assault weapons. California Penal Code section 30515, subdivision (a)(1) lists assault weapon characteristics. The purchaser could be in violation of Penal Code section 30600(a), prohibiting the possession of unregistered assault weapons.
2. Alterations of a single–shot pistol (changing upper receivers, connecting gas tubes) may also be considered “manufacturing” an unsafe handgun. California Penal Code sections 31900-31910 for the definition of unsafe handguns and 32000(a) for more information on illegal acts involving unsafe handguns.
In addition to a few dozen models California has SPECIFICALLY designated as “assault weapons” there are characteristics of a firearm that designate any other firearm as an “assault weapon”.
A semiautomatic centerfire firearm that is not a rifle, pistol, or shotgun, that does not have a fixed magazine, but that has any one of the following:
A pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon.
A thumbhole stock.
A folding or telescoping stock.
A grenade launcher or flare launcher.
A flash suppressor.
A forward pistol grip.
A threaded barrel, capable of accepting a flash suppressor, forward handgrip, or silencer.
A second handgrip.
A shroud that is attached to, or partially or completely encircles, the barrel that allows the bearer to fire the weapon without burning the bearer’s hand, except a slide that encloses the barrel.
The capacity to accept a detachable magazine at some location outside of the pistol grip.
A semiautomatic centerfire firearm that is not a rifle, pistol, or shotgun, that has a fixed magazine with the capacity to accept more than 10 rounds. A semiautomatic centerfire firearm that is not a rifle, pistol, or shotgun, that has an overall length of less than 30 inches.
So, even if a firearm isn’t on California’s specific list of assault weapon models, any modifications or features above will instantly cause it to be viewed by the state as an “assault weapon”. Most of these features are standard equipment on popular models sold throughout the rest of the county.
There’s an interesting wrinkle in the legality of firearms and accessories in California known as Freedom Week.
Since 2000, it’s been illegal to manufacture, import, sell, transfer, buy, or receive magazines holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition in California.
However, a U.S. District Court Judge found the ban unconstitutional on March 29, 2019.
Large capacity magazines were quickly purchased without the restriction.
One week after the initial ruling, the very same judge decided that the ban should continue when the attorney general of California took the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals.
However, the judge also ruled that the ban could not be enforced upon those who bought large capacity magazines while the band was lifted (April 1 to April 5, 2019)—during what came to be known as “Freedom Week”. Since the vast majority of magazines are not dated or serialized, it becomes effectively impossible to know whether a magazine was transferred during this time or soon after.
OTHER WRINKLES IN CALIFORNIA GUN LAW
Background checks are required for ammo purchases. In 2019, California became the first state in the U.S. to require point-of-sale background checks for ammunition purchases.
Online ammo purchases can’t be shipped directly to you. Unless you’re a licensed ammunition vendor. You can’t personally import ammo bought out of state, either. All transactions must be face-to-face, or conducted through a licensed ammunition vendor.
As you can see, California’s reputation as one of the most restrictive firearm states—if not the most restrictive—is well-earned. But, with an estimated 28.3% of adults in California having guns in their homes—according to a 2020 RAND Corporation study—it’s clear that there are still some 2nd Amendment-supporting individuals in the Golden State willing to negotiate the gauntlet of California’s gun laws to enjoy their freedom.