What happens if you are arrested with a gun in California? What kinds of guns are you allowed to own and where can you carry them?
This guide will cover some of the common laws and regulations related to firearm possession in California. It is not meant to be used in place of guidance from a practicing attorney, and if you are in a particular legal situation, we would recommend speaking to an attorney directly to receive advice tailored to your situation.
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Understanding Firearm and Handgun Possession in California
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Under the Second Amendment of the Constitution, it is legal to own and possess guns in the State of California. However, the state has the right to regulate and restrict the ownership of certain types of guns — and to certain types of people — where it believes it will benefit the safety of the people of California.
To that end, California’s gun laws are known for being some of the most restrictive in the nation.
You must be 18 years old to buy a rifle or shotgun, and you must be 21 to buy a handgun. All gun purchases in the State of California, even private sales and gun shows, are required to go through licensed dealers in what is called the Dealer’s Record of Sale (DROS) process. This is done to ensure that you are above age and a legal resident of California.
The Personal Firearms Eligibility Check
Prior to purchasing a weapon, a buyer is subject to a Personal Firearms Eligibility Check. This background check is done to weed out anyone who has been convicted of a “felony, certain misdemeanors, certain firearms offenses, who is addicted to narcotics, who is the subject of a domestic violence restraining order, or has been committed to a mental institution pursuant to Welfare and Institutions Code section 8100.”
The PFEC costs $20 is performed by the Department of Justice. You can find the PFEC forms here.
Depending on what is turned up in your background check, the PFEC will come back with one of four possible results:
- You are eligible to possess and buy new firearms.
- You may possess, but not buy new firearms.
- You may not possess or buy new firearms.
- No determination. This is done when there isn’t enough information for the state to make a call on your status to purchase a firearms.
The results of the PFEC will be based on your criminal, drug and mental history noted above, but details related to your history will not be included in the report. There will simply be a determination of one of the above.
If you are found to be unable to possess or buy new firearms, you are required to surrender all of your current firearms. If you are required to surrender your weapons, there are certain restrictions on who you can transfer them to. For more information, you can read the State of California’s PFEC FAQ here.
The Firearms Safety Certificate and Handgun Safety Certificate
In addition to the PFEC, most gun buyers will also need to obtain a Firearms Safety Certificate or Handgun Safety Certificate. This can usually be filled out at the dealer you are visiting to get your firearm. This is a 30-question test with multiple choice and true/false questions. You are required to get a 75% or better (23 correct out of 30) in order to pass.
With a successfully processed PFEC, FSC and DROS, your purchase can proceed.
The Purchase Process and Registration
You will then be subject to a 10-day waiting period before the seller can legally transfer the gun to you.
An important thing to note is that your PFEC is valid for 30 days from the point of approval, so if you do not take possession of your firearm after the 10-day waiting period but before the 30-day window, you will have to complete another PFEC and another 10-day waiting period.
There is no limit to the amount of handguns you can own in California, but you can only purchase one gun every 30 days.
When purchasing your firearm, make sure to bring valid ID — a California driver’s license, state ID, military ID or resident alien card. In addition to this, California keeps a comprehensive registry of firearms and their owners. Your background check, fingerprint and personal information will be retained in a state database, along with their serial numbers.
If you move into the State of California, you are required to register your handguns, rifles and long guns within 60 days.
What Guns are Legal in California?
California has strict regulations on the types and configurations of firearms you are allowed to own. It is illegal to import, possess or purchase assault weapons and machine guns fed with .50 caliber machine gun ammunition, unless you acquired them prior to 1989.
In June 2016, the state passed Senate Bill 880 and Assembly Bill 1135, which expanded the state’s assault weapon ban to include semi-automatic, center-fire rifles and shotguns that have a “bullet button” detachable magazine. Because some in the political and media arenas haven’t been all that clear on the defenitions of things like “center-fire” and “bullet button,” we’d recommend reviewing the State of California’s direction on this for determining if it applies to you.
In addition to restrictions on weapon type, California also limits magazine size. California currently prohibits the sale, possession, transfer or creation of “large-capacity magazines,” punishable by either a felony or misdemeanor.
As of October 2017, we’re also pending final judgement on Proposition 63, a state ballot measure that would prohibit magazines larger than 10 rounds. This was passed by voters in November 2016, but in late June of 2017, a federal judge blocked enforcement of the ban while legal challenges work through court.
Lastly, firearms that are stored on a property with children are required by the 2008 California Dangerous Weapons Control Law to be kept in a secure location.
Are CCW Permits and Open Carry Legal in California?
Concealed Carry is legal in the State of California. To get a license, contact the sheriff’s department in your area, or if you live in a city, contact your local police department to apply.
In order to get a CCW permit in California, you can expect to pay around $400 for background checks, processing fees and training. Licensing is up to the discretion of the issuing department, but state law requires that:
- The license holder be of good moral character
- That good cause exists for the issuance
- The applicant is a resident of the county or city to which they are applying (or the applicant’s place of employment is within the city or county)
- The applicant has completed a course of training (16-24 hours)
Even with a CCW permit, be careful to honor restrictions on carry within certain areas (schools, bars, courthouses, etc.). California does not honor CCW permits of any other states.
Open carry is illegal in all incorporated areas of California. You might find that it is legal in some rural areas where it hasn’t been specifically banned, but generally speaking, it is not allowed within the state.
Does California Have Castle Law?
California has a Castle Doctrine, which states that an intruder in a home, business or other property is presumed to present a deadly threat, and that the homeowner has no duty to retreat. There is some nuance to this, which firearm owners must be careful to pay attention to.
California does not have a stand-your-ground law, so the right of Castle Doctrine ends outside of a property. As well, case law in California has established that the right to use force ends when the intruder no longer presents a threat to a person or his property.
How to Travel With Handguns in California
Handguns must be unloaded and locked in a fully enclosed container other than glove box when carrying them in a vehicle. For these purposes, the trunk of the car is typically allowed but other compartments on the car (such as the glove box) are forbidden.
Long guns do not need to be kept in a locked container, except when taken into Gun Free Zones. By federal law, all guns traveling through Gun Free Zones must be kept in locked containers.
How to Transfer Handguns in California
You can’t sell a firearm directly to another person. Instead, you must always work through a licensed firearms dealer.
It is legal to give a firearm to your spouse, domestic partner, brother, sister, aunt, uncle or cousin, as long as the recipient of your firearm satisfies all of the requirements of ownership eligibility above (of age, no disqualifying criminal history, substance abuse history, mental illness).
In this case, your recipient will have to obtain a Handgun Safety Certificate and submit a $19 Report of Operation of Law or Intra-Familial Handgun Transaction. The transfer must go through a licensed dealer, but if the transfer is parent-child or grandparent-grandchild, the dealer requirement is lifted.
What Happens If You Are Arrested With a Gun in California?
Weapons offenses in California are typically serious and are often charged as felonies. They can be related entirely to the laws described above, offenses like:
- Carrying a concealed weapon without a permit
- Illegal sale of a firearm
- Possession of an assault weapon
- Possession of a weapon by a convicted felon
When used in the commission of other crimes, possession of a firearm can often lead to more serious charges pressed against you:
- Aggravated assault with a deadly weapon
- Firing a weapon into an occupied building
It depends entirely on the circumstances around your case, but charges like these can be prosecuted as misdemeanors or felonies. A misdemeanor is punishable by up to a year in county jail and $1,000 in fines, while a felony can be punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
The court will often heavily weigh the circumstances around your arrest and your prior history when determining the sentence for a felony.
California’s “10-20-Life” Gun Enhancement Law
California’s “Use A Gun And You’re Done” law (12022.53 PC) is an “enhancement” added to certain felonies when the accused uses a gun to commit a specific crime. The way this works out is:
- 10 years is added to the sentence for “using” a gun,
- 20 years is added for firing the gun,
- And 25 years is added for killing or seriously injuring a person with the gun.
There are a number of important nuances and considerations when applying this law, so if you are charged with it, it is very important to contact an attorney immediately. It’s possible for the state to add enough years that you might be spending the rest of your natural life in prison, so mounting a competent and aggressive defense is the best way to safeguard your way of life.
Get Specific Advice For Your Situation
The State of California heavily regulates firearm ownership and usage, and it works to aggressively prosecute people who have been accused of using a gun while committing a crime. Because of this, penalties of breaking these regulations above are often severe and can have life-changing consequences.
The information presented above is for general informational and educational purposes only, and it does not represent legal advice specific to your situation.
If you are in a situation where you need specific legal advice for a situation, it is strongly recommended that you contact an attorney for a more specific consultation. My firm handles criminal defense cases, and if you have been charged with a crime, I have over 30 years experience representing people like you who have faced the same charges.