Who is (and isn’t) allowed to have guns in California?
The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution provides people with the right to bear arms.
Further, California gun laws allow most adults age 21 and older to:
- own, and
- possess a gun.
California laws, though, provide some limitations on this right. For example, State law:
- prohibits some people from acquiring or possessing a gun, and
- requires Californians to obtain a Firearm Safety Certificate (FSC) prior to legally acquiring a gun.
1.1. People prohibited from possessing a gun
The following people are generally prohibited from buying or possessing a gun in California:
- convicted felons,1
- narcotic addicts,2
- persons with two or more convictions under Penal Code Section 417 PC, California’s law against brandishing a weapon,3
- persons convicted of certain misdemeanor offenses (e.g., corporal injury to a spouse, per California Penal Code 273.5 PC and crimes involving domestic violence),4
- persons who suffer from mental illness,5 and
- people under 18 (this group of people, though, can own a BB gun if they have parental consent).6
Note that California’s red flag law also allows coworkers, employers, and teachers to seek restraining orders to remove guns from the possession of potentially dangerous people.7 These orders are sometimes referred to as “gun violence restraining orders,” or GVROs.
Also note that if a person is prohibited from owning a gun, then he/she is also prohibited from owning any ammunition.8
If a person does not fall into one of the above-prohibited categories, then he/she can legally buy and possess a gun.
These persons may legally keep a gun within their house or a place of business that they own. Gun owners may also legally carry a gun from place to place provided that it is in a locked container.9
1.2. Firearm Safety Certificates
Per Penal Code 26840 PC, any person who acquires a firearm must have a Firearm Safety Certificate (FSC).10 In the case of a handgun, it is permissible if the owner has an expired handgun safety certificate.11
The above statute applies unless a person is exempt under the law from having to have a certificate. An example of an exempt person is someone that:
- was issued a valid hunting license, and
- wants to own or possess long guns.12
To obtain an FSC, a person must pass a California Department of Justice (DOJ) written test on firearm safety.
What is the process for buying, selling, and registering guns?
The State of California’s firearms laws impose certain rules and restrictions with regards to the:
- purchase of a gun,
- sale of a gun, and
- registration of a firearm.
Under California’s Dealer’s Record of Sale (DROS) process, all firearm purchases and transfers must be made through a licensed gun dealer. This includes:
- private party transactions, and
- purchases at gun shows.13
State law imposes a 10-day waiting period before a seller can release or transfer a gun to a buyer and allow that person to take gun ownership.14
Per Penal Code 27510, a licensed dealer cannot do any of the following in relation to a person under the age of 21:
- sell a gun,
- supply a gun,
- deliver a gun,
- transfer a gun, or
- give possession or control of a gun.15
Some exceptions to this rule apply. For example, a dealer can sell or transfer a gun to a person under 21, but over the age of 18, when,
- he/she possesses a valid hunting license,
- he/she is an active peace officer, and/or
- he/she is an active federal officer or law enforcement agent who is authorized to carry a firearm.16
The DROS process requires purchasers to present a licensed dealer with clear evidence of his/her age at the time of buying a gun. This evidence may include:
- a valid California driver’s license,
- a valid California identification card, and
- a military identification card with a copy of permanent duty station orders.17
Purchasers of handguns also have to provide proof of California residency. This can be done by way of a:
- utility bill,
- residential lease,
- property deed, or
- government-issued ID.18
Also, with handguns, note that there is no limit on the total number of handguns that a person can buy. However, most buyers cannot buy more than one handgun in any 30-day period.19
Note that a “handgun” includes items like:
- semiautomatic pistols, and
- most firearms equipped with a pistol grip.
Please note that there are special relaxed rules for transferring firearms between family members in California.
Penal Code 26700 PC sets forth the requirements to be a licensed dealer of firearms. If a person satisfies all of the requirements, then he/she can become a licensed dealer.20
Some of these requirements include that gun dealers:
- have a valid firearms license imposed under federal law,
- have any regulatory or business license, or licenses, required by local government, and
- have a valid seller’s permit issued by the State Board of Equalization.21
Federal law requires federally licensed firearms dealers (but not private sellers) to initiate a background check on a purchaser prior to the sale of a firearm.22
Note that all California licensed dealers have to be “federally licensed firearms dealers.” This means they are all required to perform background checks.
See California’s Bureau of Firearms’ website for any new laws regarding when DOJ must complete a background check during COVID-19.
Federal law prohibits a person from acquiring or possessing a gun if he/she:
- has been convicted of certain crimes, or
- is subject to a court order related to domestic violence or a serious mental condition.23
Penal Code 26500 makes it a misdemeanor to sell, lease, or transfer a gun without a license.24
Violators face up to:
- one year in county jail, and/or
- a maximum fine of $1,000.25
A person can register a gun in California by completing and submitting a Firearm Ownership Report (FOR) Application.26 A completed report is an owner’s declaration that he/she is the gun’s true owner.
A FOR Application is not required for most guns/gun owners under the State’s firearm laws. Firearms get registered by a gun dealer during the sale of a firearm.
Gun registration, though, is required when a person is moving into California and owns a firearm.27
Are there rules about transporting and storing firearms?
Once a person buys or acquires possession of a firearm, California law imposes several public safety requirements when a person:
- transports the gun, and
- stores the gun.
The rules on transporting a firearm differ a bit depending on whether the gun is:
- a handgun that can be concealed,
- a firearm that cannot be concealed, or
- an assault rifle.
3.1.1. Handguns that can be concealed
To lawfully transport a handgun in a vehicle, California residents must ensure that it is:
- locked in the trunk of the vehicle or in a locked container inside the vehicle, and
- apparent, or not concealed inside the vehicle.28
It is always a crime to transport a loaded firearm.
Gun ammo can be either stored in:
- the locked container, or
- some other carrying device.
Owners of guns must adhere to these rules no matter if they are:
- the driver of the vehicle, or
- a passenger inside the car.
3.1.2. Firearms that cannot be concealed
State law says that firearms that cannot be concealed must be unloaded when a person transports them29
Typically, local laws say that non-concealable firearms do not have to be in a locked container. United States federal law, though, says that some types of firearms do have to be in a locked container or in a gun rack when in a school zone.30 These are zones located within 1,000 feet of the grounds of a K-12 school.31
Note that firearms that cannot be concealed include:
- long guns,
- carbines, and
- a centerfire rifle.
3.1.3. Assault rifles
When transporting an assault weapon, Californians must ensure that it is:
- unloaded, and
- stored in a locked container.32
Further, note that assault weapons can only be transported to and from certain places. For example, a person may only transport these guns to:
- a licensed firearms dealer for servicing or repair,
- the gun owner’s private property,
- someone else’s property, provided that the property owner has given the person permission to bring the gun, and
- a firing range.33
Semi-automatic rifles are examples of assault rifles.
California’s attorney general provides several recommendations on gun storage. The attorney general encourages gun owners to:
- store their gun with a state-approved firearm safety device on it (e.g., a trigger lock or a cable lock),
- ensure that their weapon is not loaded,
- put their firearm in a locked container (a lockbox or a gun safe), and
- store their gun in a different location than the ammunition.34
Additional safety measures will apply in the event that either:
- children are present in the location where a gun is being stored, and
- a person prohibited from possessing a gun is present in the location where the gun is being stored.
3.2.1. Child present
Per Penal Code 25100 PC it is a crime for a gun owner to:
- store a loaded firearm in a home, or within an area of the owner’s control, and
- do so when the owner knows, or should know, that a child could access it without a parent’s permission.35
This means if a gun owner knows that a child can access a stored gun, he/she should:
- make certain that it is unloaded, and
- store it in a place outside of the child’s access (like a locked container).
A violation of the above law is a misdemeanor offense. The crime is punishable by up to one year in county jail. This punishment will increase if a child accesses the weapon and causes:
- great bodily injury, or
Note that no criminal charges will be filed if a child accessed the gun in a lawful act of self-defense or in the defense of another person.37
3.2.2. Storage with prohibited person
Penal Code 25100 PC also makes it a crime for a gun owner to:
- store a loaded gun in a home, or within an area of the owner’s control, and
- do so when the owner knows, or should know, that a person prohibited from possessing a firearm could access it.38
This means if a gun owner knows that an adult who cannot possess a gun can access the weapon, he/she should:
- make certain that it is unloaded, and
- store it in a place outside of the adult’s access (like in a locked container).
A violation of the above law is charged as a misdemeanor. The crime is punishable by up to one year in county jail.
Note that this punishment increases if an adult gets to the weapon and causes:
- great bodily injury, or
Note, though, that no criminal charges will be filed if the prohibited person accessed a gun in a lawful act of self-defense or in the defense of another person.41
Who is allowed to carry a concealed weapon?
Penal Code 25400 PC is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to carry a concealed weapon.
However, the statute will not apply if a person has a lawful concealed carry permit, or “CCW.” This means a party can legally carry a concealed weapon if he/she has obtained a CCW.
4.1. Penal Code 25400
PC 25400 makes it a criminal offense for a person to carry a concealed weapon.
A prosecutor must prove the following to convict a person under this statute:
- the accused concealed a firearm on his/her person or in a vehicle,
- the defendant knew about the presence of the concealed gun, and
- the firearm was substantially concealed.42
As to the second element above, it is a legal defense to this crime if the accused did not know of the presence of a weapon. For example, a defendant is not guilty if he was in a friend’s car and did not know that there was a gun under his seat.
A violation of this law is charged as a misdemeanor.43 A conviction is punishable by:
- custody in county jail for up to one year, and/or
- a maximum $1,000 fine.44
A PC 25400 violation, though, can become a felony when:
- the defendant has a prior felony conviction or conviction for a California firearm offense,45
- the firearm is stolen and the accused knew, or had reasonable cause to believe, that it was stolen,46
- the accused was actively involved in a criminal street gang,47
- the defendant unlawfully possessed the firearm,48
- the defendant was prohibited from possessing a firearm under Penal Code 29800 PC, California’s felon with a firearm law,49 or
- the accused was prohibited from possessing a firearm under Penal Code 29900 PC for committing a violent offense.50
As to number one above, note that a defendant will serve a minimum of three years in county jail if:
- he/she carried a concealed weapon, and
- has a prior firearm offense.51
This includes prior convictions under:
- Penal Code 245a1 PC, assault with a deadly weapon,
- Penal Code 246 PC, shooting at an inhabited dwelling house or car, and
- Penal Code 417 PC, California’s brandishing a weapon law.52
As to number six above, offenses deemed “violent” for purposes of this section include (but are not limited to):
Felony carrying a concealed firearm is punishable by:
- up to three years in county jail, and/or
- a maximum $10,000 fine.54
4.2. Concealed carry permit
A concealed carry permit is the only means by which ordinary citizens may legally carry concealed firearms in public in California. Absent a CCW, it is a crime to carry either a loaded or an unloaded firearm in public.
A concealed carry permit is sometimes referred to as a “concealed weapons permit.”
The following are the only parties that may issue a CCW:
- a county sheriff,55 or
- the chief or other head of a municipal police department.56
A person must prove the following in order to receive a CCW:
- he/she is of good moral character,
- good cause exists for issuance of the license because the person, or a family member, is in immediate danger,
- he/she meets certain residency requirements, and
- the person has completed an acceptable course on firearms training.57
If someone receives a permit to carry a concealed firearm, he/she may legally carry a loaded, concealed gun. However, the person with the permit must comply with the terms and conditions outlined in the permit.
Note that there was some recent doubt about the constitutionality of California’s laws on CCW permits. In 2014, the court ruled that that the “good cause” requirement to obtain a CCW violated the Second Amendment right to bear arms.58
But in June 2016, the court overturned this finding. The court ruled that in fact, the Second Amendment does not apply to concealed firearms, and thus there are no constitutional rights implicated by California’s “good cause” requirement.59
Further, the United States Supreme Court (sitting in Washington, D.C.) refused to consider a challenge to California’s concealed carry law.60 So law-abiding gun owners can still carry a concealed handgun if they obtain a CCW.
Is anyone allowed to open carry?
It is generally a crime for a person to openly carry a firearm in California.61 This applies to the open carry of both:
- loaded guns, and
- unloaded guns.
Note, however, there is one exception involving the open carry of loaded guns. Under California law, the sheriff of any county with a population under 200,000 people may issue licenses for people to carry a loaded, exposed handgun.62
Note too that the laws regarding the open carry of firearms may change. In 2018, a court ruled that the Second Amendment guarantees the open carry of a gun.63 This decision, however, was appealed and the court will be rehearing the case later in 2020.64
Carrying an unloaded handgun in public is a misdemeanor.65 Most violations are punishable by:
- up to one year in county jail, or
- a fine of up to $1,000.66
Carrying a loaded firearm in public is a misdemeanor.67 The penalties include:
- custody in county jail for up to one year, and/or
- a maximum fine of $1,000.68
Note, though, that aggravating factors can make the crime a wobbler offense. This means a prosecutor can charge the offense as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
A felony conviction can result in imprisonment in county jail for up to three years.69
Are certain types of firearms illegal altogether?
Penal Code 16590 is the California statute on “generally prohibited weapons.” The law bans certain firearms and firearm accessories.
More specifically, the statute makes it a crime for a person to do any of the following with these guns/add-ons:
- manufacture them,
- import them into the state,
- keep them for sale,
- offer them for sale,
- give them away,
- lend them, or
- possess them.70
A “generally prohibited weapon” includes the following guns, equipment, and ammunition:
- short-barreled shotguns and rifles, also illegal per Penal Code 33215 PC,71
- undetectable firearms, also illegal per Penal Code 24610 PC,72
- firearms that are not immediately recognizable as firearms, also illegal per Penal Code 24510 PC,73
- unconventional pistols, also illegal per Penal Code 31500 PC,74
- cane guns (or a gun that is enclosed in an object that looks like a walking cane), also illegal per Penal Code 24410 PC,75
- wallet guns (or a firearm enclosed in a small case), also illegal per Penal Code 17330 PC,76
- zip guns (or a cheap makeshift firearm made by miscellaneous material), also illegal per Penal Code 33600 PC,77
- camouflaging firearm containers, also illegal per Penal Code 24310 PC,78
- bullets containing explosive agents, also illegal per Penal Code 30210 PC,79
- multiburst trigger activators – also illegal per Penal Code 32900 PC,80 and
Note that large-capacity ammunition magazines are now legal in California.81 In 2020, the Ninth Circuit said Penal Code 32310 PC violated the 2nd Amendment.82
A violation of these laws is a wobbler. This means a prosecutor can charge the crime as either a misdemeanor or a felony.83
If a misdemeanor, the crime is punishable by:
- custody in county jail for up to one year, and/or
- a maximum fine of $1,000.84
If a felony, the offense is punishable by:
- imprisonment in jail for up to three years, and/or
- a maximum fine of $10,000.85
What about assault weapons?
Penal Code 30600 PC largely bans assault weapons in California. (Although a federal judge overturned this ban on June 4, 2021, it remains in effect while the state appeals the ruling.)
A question often arises under this statute on the meaning of assault weapons and .50 BMG rifles.
Are there places where guns are prohibited?
There are six places in California where guns are prohibited. These are:
- school grounds,
- public buildings and meetings open to the public,
- government buildings,
- the Governor’s mansion,
- airports and passenger vessel terminals, and
- public transit facilities.
8.1. School grounds
Penal Code 626.9 PC is California’s Gun-Free School Zone Act. The statute prohibits anyone from possessing a gun on or near school grounds.97
More specifically, the law makes it a crime to:
- possess a firearm in or on the grounds of a public or private K-12 school,98
- discharge, or attempt to discharge, a firearm in a school zone with reckless disregard for the safety of another,99 and
- bring or possesses a loaded firearm upon the grounds of student or teacher housing for a public or private university.100
A violation of these laws can result in a jail sentence of up to seven years.101
8.2. Public buildings and meetings open to the public
Penal Code 171b PC is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to bring or possess certain “weapons” into:
- public buildings, and
- meetings open to the public.102
Some of these “weapons” include any:
- knife with a blade length over four inches,
- tear gas weapon,
- taser or stun gun, and
- BB or pellet gun.103
A “public building” is a building owned or leased by the state or local government, if state or local public employees are regularly present to perform their official duties.104
Note that this statute may not necessarily apply to:
- those personnel that transport weapons into a court of law to be used as evidence,
- police officers and law enforcement officers,
- persons holding a valid license to carry a firearm, and
- a person who has permission to possess the weapon and is in charge of securing the public building he is in.105
A violation of this statute is a wobbler offense, meaning it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.106
If charged as a misdemeanor, the crime is punishable by imprisonment in the county jail for up to one year.
If charged as a felony, the offense is punishable by custody in county jail for up to three years.
8.3. Government buildings
Penal Code 171c PC makes it a crime for a person to bring a loaded firearm into any of the following:
- the State Capitol,
- any legislative office,
- any hearing room in which any committee of the Senate or Assembly is conducting a hearing, or
- the Legislative Office Building at 1020 N Street in the City of Sacramento.107
A violation of this statute is a wobbler. This means it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
A misdemeanor conviction can bring a county jail sentence of up to one year.108
A felony conviction can lead to custody in county jail for up to three years.109
8.4. The Governor’s mansion
Penal Code 171d PC is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to possess a loaded firearm within or on the grounds of:
- the Governor’s Mansion or any other residence of the Governor,
- the residence of any other constitutional officer, or
- the residence of any member of the California Legislature.110
A violation of this law is a wobbler. This means it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
A misdemeanor offense is punishable by imprisonment in county jail for up to one year.111
A felony offense is punishable by custody in county jail for up to three years.112
8.5. Airports and passenger vessel terminals
Penal Code 171.5 PC makes it a crime for a person to possess, within any sterile area of an airport or a passenger vessel terminal:
- a firearm,
- a taser or stun gun,
- a BB or pellet gun,
- an imitation firearm,
- the frame or receiver of a firearm, or
- any ammunition.113
Possession of any of these guns within the sterile (post-security check) area of an airport or a passenger vessel terminal is charged as a misdemeanor. The offense is punishable by:
- up to six months in county jail, and/or
- a fine of up to $1,000.114
8.6. Public transit facilities
Penal Code 171.7 PC makes it a crime to knowingly possess within any sterile area of a public transit facility:
- a firearm,
- an imitation firearm,
- a taser or stun gun,
- a BB or pellet gun, or
- a spot marker or paint gun.115
Note, though, that the sterile area must be posted with a statement providing reasonable notice that prosecution may result.116
Public transit facilities transport members of the public for hire. They include (but are not limited to):
- light rail systems,
- rapid transit systems,
- subways, and
A violation of this law is charged as a misdemeanor. The crime is punishable by:
- up to six months in county jail, and/or
- a fine of up to $1,000.118
What are the rules on ammunition and gun accessories?
In addition to addressing firearms, California’s gun laws impose rules and restrictions on the following:
- large capacity magazines,
- armor-piercing magazines,
- stun guns,
- laser scopes and laser pointers.
9.1. Large capacity magazines
As mentioned above (Section 6), large-capacity magazines are now legal in California. “Large-capacity magazines” are those that can generally hold 10 rounds of ammunition or more.119
9.2. Armor-piercing ammunition
Penal Code 30315 PC is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to possess armor-piercing ammunition.
“Armor-piercing” bullets are those designed to penetrate ballistic armor and protective shields, which are intended to deflect conventional bullets.
Possession of armor-piercing ammunition is a wobbler offense, meaning it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
A misdemeanor conviction is punishable by up to one year in county jail.120
A felony conviction can lead to custody in county jail for up to three years.121
Per California Penal Code 33410 PC, it is a crime for a person to possess a silencer.
A violation of this statute is charged as a felony. The offense is punishable by:
- custody in county jail for up to three years, and/or
- a fine not to exceed $10,000.122
9.4. Stun guns
It is legal in California for most people to own a stun gun.
However, Penal Code 22610 PC makes it illegal for certain people to buy, use, or possess a stun gun. These people include:
- anyone convicted of a felony, any crime involving assault, or any crime involving the misuse of a stun gun under PC 244.5,
- narcotic addicts, and
- minors, unless he/she is at least 16 years of age and has the written consent of his/her parent or legal guardian.123
The first violation of Penal Code 22610 is a public offense punishable by a $50 fine.124
Subsequent violations are treated as misdemeanors, punishable by:
- up to one year in a county jail, and/or
- a maximum $1,000 fine.125
9.5. Laser scopes and laser pointers
Penal Code 417.25 PC is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to point a laser scope, or a laser pointer, at another person in a threatening manner.126
Note that “threatening manner,” means that the pointing of the scope or laser instills fear of bodily harm in the other person.127
A “laser scope” is a portable battery-powered device that can be attached to a gun and can project a laser light onto objects.128
A “laser pointer” is a hand-held laser beam device that emits a single point of light, which can be seen by the human eye.129
A violation of PC 417.25 is charged as a misdemeanor in California. The crime is punishable by imprisonment in county jail for up to 30 days.130
Note that in lieu of jail time, a judge may impose misdemeanor (or summary) probation.
How can I restore gun rights after a criminal conviction?
As stated above (Section 1.1), felony convictions and convictions of certain misdemeanors result in a person losing his/her right to:
- own a gun,
- buy a gun, and
- possess a gun.
These people must relinquish their gun(s) following a conviction.
A felony conviction means a person will lose his/her gun rights for life.
Similarly, a few weapon-related misdemeanor convictions can subject a person to a lifetime ban on guns.
In addition, about 40 misdemeanors carry a 10-year firearms ban.131 Some of these include:
- stalking, per Penal Code 646.9 PC,
- battery, per Penal Code 242 PC,
- brandishing a weapon, per Penal Code 417, and
- making criminal threats, per Penal Code 422 PC.
Despite these rules, many people convicted of a crime can try to restore his/her gun rights. This can be done by:
- having a “wobbler” felony reduced to a misdemeanor, or
- receiving a pardon from the California governor.132
Reducing a felony to a misdemeanor means that a person will not face a lifetime ban on guns (because the felony conviction is reduced).
As to a pardon, a person must apply directly to the governor for a pardon if:
- he/she lives outside California, or
- he/she was convicted of certain misdemeanor sex offenses.133
Otherwise, obtaining a pardon is a two-step process. A person must:
- petition the superior court for a California Certificate of Rehabilitation, and
- if the petition is granted, it automatically becomes a petition for a pardon from the California Governor.134
Note that California’s Governor has complete discretion to grant or deny pardon requests.
What are some California offenses that involve firearms?
There are several California crimes that involve firearms. In addition to the ones mentioned above, some others include:
- inflicting bodily injury while brandishing a gun, per Penal Code 417.6 PC,
- California’s “drive-by shooting” law, per Penal Code 26100 PC,
- personal use of a firearm in the commission of a felony, per Penal Code 12022.5 PC,
- the “10-20-life ‘use a gun and you’re done’” law, per Penal Code 12022.53 PC,
- sentencing enhancement for criminal street gang participation, per Penal Code 186.22 PC,
- commission of a firearm felony while possessing metal-piercing armor or wearing a bullet-proof vest, per Penal Code 12022.2 PC,
- use of a gun during the commission of sex crimes, per Penal Code 12022.3 PC, and
- aiding or abetting a felony with a firearm, per Penal Code 12022.4 PC.
Are ghost guns legal in California?
People who assemble their own guns in California have to apply for a serial number to affix to the gun. Otherwise, it is still legal to buy gun parts and assemble them without a background check.135 However, federal law may soon require that gun parts have their own serial numbers, and for people to have to pass background checks in order to purchase gun parts.136