Buying a gun in California, or in any state, for the first time is a big decision. What do you need to look for? What is the intended purpose of the firearm? Are you defending your Casa? Or are you looking to bag a trophy gobbler? Maybe your commute is a little sketchy, and you would prefer not to get mugged for the eighth time. Whatever the reason is, gun ownership is a tremendous responsibility. However, you are surrounded by one of the world’s warmest, most knowledgeable communities. However, the first hurdle to joining this community is purchasing a firearm.

Objectively speaking, California has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation. If you are a first-time gun buyer, you will probably be shocked at how difficult it is to purchase and legally possess a firearm in the great state of California. If you think it’s as easy as walking in and with Apple Pay and walking out with an AK, think again. 

Again, objectively speaking, your selection of quality firearms is severely limited to the civilian consumer in California, and there are significant restrictions on ammunition capacity and accessories. We will dive into the bones of what it takes to buy a gun in California, along with the mandated regulations on magazine capacity, assault weapons, etc.

Overview of the Sales and Transfer of Firearms in California

In California, only fully licensed firearms dealers with a Federal Firearm License (FFL), all required local city permits, and are listed on the California Centralized List of Firearms Dealers may sell and transfer firearms.

All retail sales require the buyer to submit personally identifying information for the Dealer Record of Sale (DROS). This is the formal background check that goes through the California DOJ to determine whether or not the buyer is eligible to purchase the firearm. And yes, this same background check is conducted every sale. 

California also imposes a ten-day waiting period between the purchase date and the date the dealer can relinquish possession to the buyer. During this period, the California DOJ will conduct its background assessment.

Handgun Sales and Transfer

Accordingly, the sale and transfer of handguns are more involved. Handguns have a 21-year minimum age as opposed to long guns, which are 18. 

The following matrix explains rules regarding the sale or transfer of handguns per the California Firearms Law Summary, published by the California DOJ. 

Retail Sales Private Party Transfers Intra-familial transfers Pawn returns
Proof-of-Residency Requirement  Yes Yes No Yes
Firearm Safety Certificate  Yes Yes Yes No
Safe Handling Demonstration Yes Yes No No
Firearm Safety Device Yes Yes No No
The roster of Handguns Certified for Sale in California Yes No No No
One-Handgun-per-30-day limit Yes No No No

Long Gun Sales and Transfer

Long guns require most of the same steps as handguns but are not quite as involved. Use the following table for reference:

Retail Sales Private Party Transfers Intra-familial transfers Pawn returns
Proof-of-Residency Requirement  No No No No
Firearm Safety Certificate  Yes Yes Yes No
Safe Handling Demonstration Yes Yes No No
Firearm Safety Device Yes Yes No No

California Roster of Certified Handguns

In most cases in California, a California resident can only purchase handguns listed on the California DOJ’s Roster of Certified Handguns.

As of January 1, 2001, no handgun may be manufactured within California, imported into California for sale, lent, given, kept for sale, or offered/exposed for sale unless that handgun model has passed firing, safety, and drop tests and is certified for sale in California by the Department of Justice.

Private party transfers, curio/relic handguns, certain single-action revolvers, and pawn/consignment returns are exempt from the roster requirements.

Any handgun not on the CA Roster of Certified Handguns and not exempt by AB-1964 is considered “unsafe” therefore making it illegal for anyone not exempted by CA PEN 32000.

Visit https://oag.ca.gov/firearms/certified-handguns/search to see the complete list of currently “on roster” handguns in California.

CA PEN 32000 provides a comprehensive list of exemptions from the Roster of Certified handguns.

Unless specifically exempt by CA PEN 32000, there are only two ways where a non-exempt individual can purchase an “off roster” firearm.

  1. Purchase the firearm from a private party.

  2. Intra-familial Transfer

The Background Check Process

You must submit to a background check with every firearm you purchase. Once the purchase is initiated, you must wait ten days to pick up your firearm, assuming you get cleared through DROS without any flags. 

Also, it is essential to note that if you pawn a firearm and reclaim your gun from the pawn shop, you are subject to the DROS and must abide by the same ten-day wait as if you were purchasing a new firearm. 

For the consumer, all you need to be familiar with is that you will be subject to a background check, it is a system known as DROS, and your ID must have your current address or you must provide proof of your current address if the address on your ID is not up to date. Beyond that, it is a state issue, and you must wait.

Step-by-step guide on purchasing a firearm in California

Phew, the overview had a lot of information. Purchasing a firearm is already a big decision, and the firearm purchasing process in California can be overwhelming. We’ve broken down the process into a handful of steps to help you on your way to becoming a gun owner in California.

Buying a Gun in California – Step 1: Do I qualify to buy a gun in California? Determine Your Eligibility to Possess a Firearm

The most important question is who can legally possess a firearm in California.

First and foremost, the supreme law of the land, known commonly as the Supremacy Clause, in Article VI, Paragraph II of the Constitution, establishes that federal law takes precedence over state laws. In this case, it stipulates that federal firearm laws should be enforced before state laws if state laws are more lenient than federal laws, the federal laws reign supreme. 

Federal Eligibility Laws

Federal possession laws are defined in the U.S. federal code 18 U.S. Code Chapter 44 – FIREARMS.  

The violation of these laws is in itself punishable by up to ten years in prison, and the punishment gets considerably more serious if they are being committed by a repeat offender.

The federal rules can be found here, but here is the brief rundown:

  • Felons
  • Drug users or addicts
  • Aliens-meaning illegal aliens and aliens with non-resident visas. 
  • Individuals subject to domestic restraining orders
  • Prior convictions of domestic assault
  • Fugitive from justice
  • Dishonorably discharged from the military

It is also completely illegal to purchase a firearm or ammunition for anyone who falls within one of these categories. You will get slapped with up to ten years in the slammer, so don’t even think about it. This is called a straw purchase, it is illegal, and if you get caught, you will do time. In fact, don’t buy a gun for anyone, ever. They can do it themselves, and chances are if they can’t it’s because of something that will get you in trouble. 

State of California Eligibility Laws 

Enforced by the California Department of Justice (CA DOJ), California has a tiered structure of firearms prohibitions, leading with lifetime prohibitions. The following are verbatim from the California firearms guide and penal code, for accuracy.

Lifetime Probitions

  • Any person convicted of any felony or any offense enumerated in Penal Code section 29905 . 
  • Any person convicted of an offense enumerated in Penal Code section 23515 .  
  • Any person with two or more convictions for violating Penal Code section 417, subdivision (a)(2)  Any person adjudicated to be a mentally disordered sex offender . (Welf . & Inst . Code, § 8103, subd . (a)(1) .)
  • Any person found by a court to be mentally incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity of any crime, unless the court has made a finding of restoration of competence  or sanity . (Welf . & Inst . Code, § 8103, subds . (b)(1), (c)(1), and (d)(1) .)

Ten Year Prohibitions

Any person convicted of a misdemeanor violation of the following: Penal Code sections 71, 76, 136 .5, 140, 148, subdivision (d), 171b, 171c, 171d, 186 .28, 240, 241, 242, 243, 244 .5, 245, 245 .5, 246, 246 .3, 247, 273 .5, 273 .6, 417, 417 .1, 417 .2, 417 .6, 422, 626 .9, 646 .9, 830 .95, subdivision (a), 17500, 17510, subdivision (a), 25300, 25800, 27510, 27590, subdivision (c), 30315, or 32625, and Welfare and Institutions Code sections 871 .5, 1001 .5, 8100, 8101, or 8103 .  

Five Year Prohibitions 

Any person taken into custody as a danger to self or others, assessed and admitted to a mental health facility under Welfare and Institutions Code sections 5150, 5151, 5152; or certified under Welfare and Institutions Code sections 5250, 5260, 5270 .15. Persons certified under Welfare and Institutions Code sections 5250, 5260, or 5270 .15 may be subject to a lifetime prohibition pursuant to federal law. 

There are additional prohibitions, which are available here. Please do yourself a service and read this in its entirety. We are summarizing it to take some of the legal speak out, but make sure to read it through on your own. Remember, you are the one who will be held responsible for anything and everything that is ever done with your firearm. 

Buying a Gun in California – Step 2: Firearm Safety Certificate

firearms safety certificate (FSC) in California

Under Penal Code 26840, all people who acquire a firearm must have a passing Firearm Safety Certificate, which requires them to take a written test administered by a firearms dealer. You must have a score of at least 75 percent to pass, and a passing FSC is valid for five years from the date it was issued.

If you fail the test the first time, you may retake another version of the examination administered by the same dealer (for free) after 24 hours have elapsed. The dealer is required to offer or make the FSC Study Guide available or refer you to view the webinar.

An FSC is valid for five years from the date of issuance.

The best way to prepare for the FSC Test is to read the FSC Study Guide. The FSC Study Guide is available to view or download from this website http://www.oag.ca.gov/sites/all/files/agweb/pdfs/firearms/forms/hscsg.pdf.

Buying a Gun in California – Step 3: Select a Firearm

There are two ways to go about choosing your firearm. 

  1. Purchase it from an in-person retailer. 
  2. Purchase it through an online retailer. To order from an online retailer, you must select an FFL transfer dealer to ship the firearm to.

We need to clear up any misconception about buying firearms online right here and right now. Any claims that it is no harder than ordering groceries are false and dishonest. You cannot order a new firearm and have it shipped straight to your door.   

All retail firearms must go through the same background check process, regardless of whether it was bought online or at a retail location like ours.

Also, purchasing a firearm online is not some conspiratorial workaround; you have to order a handgun that appears on the California Safe Handgun Roster. Long guns also must be California-compliant models. Otherwise, the online retailer will not allow the purchase to proceed.  

Buying a Gun in California – Step 4: Dealership Paperwork

ATF 4473 paperwork

When you settle on the firearm you wish to buy, now is the time to fill out the paperwork.

Along with filling out paperwork, you must also present the proper proof of residency to buy a firearm in California.

California identification (driver’s licenses) are issued in two types: “REAL ID”, and “Federal Limits Apply.” If the individual’s ID is labeled as Federal Limits Apply, firearms dealers should require them to provide proof of lawful presence which includes:

  • Valid, unexpired U.S. passport or passport card

  • Certified copy of U.S. birth certificate

  • U.S. Certificate or Consular Report of Birth Abroad of a U.S. Citizen

  • Valid, unexpired foreign passport with valid U.S. immigrant visa and approved Record of Arrival/Departure (I-94) form

  • Certified copy of a birth certificate from a U.S. Territory

  • Certificate of Naturalization or U.S. Citizenship

  • Valid, unexpired Permanent Resident Card

If the address on the valid ID needs to be current, but if it is not current, then the buyer must bring proof of address such as a utility bill or lease agreement (Pen . Code, § 26845).

Time to dispel another misconception. Federally speaking, you cannot just go get a gun at a gun store and walk out with it without filling out paperwork. The only firearms you may buy without filling out any paperwork are muzzleloading firearms that do not use cartridges (what would have been called “black powder” in years past). You must be 18 and provide ID proof of age for these. ALL other firearms, from .22 rifles and single-shot shotguns to AK-47s and AR-15s, and everything in between. 

When you purchase your firearm, you will fill out a background check form in the case of California two forms. CA DOJ’s Bureau of Firearms form 929 (DROS, now digital) and the federal ATF form 4473

The DROS is used to record the purchaser’s information and the firearm information (it must be specific to the gun being purchased), and includes all questions pertaining to self-disclosure of criminal background. 

The way it works from here is that the State of California DOJ contacts the (NICS) to run the background, rather than the FFL conducting the NICS directly.

Buying a Gun in California – Step 5: The Infamous Ten-day Waiting Period

california ten day waiting period

California is a “point of contact” state, meaning all firearm background checks get processed through the state point of contact, in this case, CA DOJ. The DROS process is used for submitting all firearm background checks to CA DOJ. As part of the DROS, the CA DOJ references applicable federal databases and its own state databases when conducting a background check on a potential purchaser.

The complexity and dependency of multiple government entities lead to the required ten-day wait period enforced with all firearms purchases and transfers unless exempt.

CA DOJ requires a minimum ten-day wait and up to 30 days. CA DOJ must give the firearms dealer who submitted the DROS a status update within 30 days. In the rare case where no update is given, it is up to the dealer to decide whether to release or not release the firearm to the purchaser

There are exceptions to the ten-day waiting period. They are the following:

  • California law enforcement officers who have a letter signed by the head of the agency stating they are full-time paid peace officers authorized to carry a firearm in the performance of their duties and authorizing the purchase. The dealer must retain the original letter and attach it to the DROS record.

  • Persons who have special weapons permits issued by DOJ. The dealer must retain a copy of the permit and attach it to the DROS record.

  • Persons who have a Curio & Relic Collector’s license issued by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATFE) and who have a valid Certificate of Eligibility (COE) only when purchasing curio and relic firearms. The dealer must retain a copy of the Federal Firearms License, Collector’s license, and the COE.

  • Dealers transferring firearms (handgun and/or long gun) to their personal inventory are required to complete the DROS process. The BATFE’s acquisition/disposition log requirements still apply.

Buying a Gun in California – Step 6: Safe Handling Demonstration

handling a gun safely

In addition to the FSC, you must conduct a safe handling demonstration. The CA DOJ has a formal affidavit that must be signed prior to taking ownership of the firearm. The affidavit must be signed by:

  • A CA DOJ-certified instructor,
  • The buyer,
  • The dealer or an employee of the dealer, 
  • And the printed name of the dealer or dealer employee. 

The safe handling demonstration must be conducted with either the firearm being purchased or an identical make and model to ensure competency with the firearm being bought.

Buying a Gun in California – Step 7: Transporting Firearms Legally

locking a gun before transporting

Once your ten-day waiting period has expired, you must transport the firearm back home. In California, this must be done in a specific manner, or you will be subject to punishment under Penal Code section 25400. 

Handguns

All handguns must be locked and stored in a lockable container during transportation. The trunk of your car does meet this standard, so a handgun can be kept unloaded in the trunk in a non-locking container (cloth pistol case, holster, etc.). 

The lock must also be CA DOJ approved. Normally a new handgun will include a lock, but it’s never bad to have some extras laying around.

The best and one of the cheapest CA DOJ-approved locks is the FSDC-CL1020RKD 15″ California DOJ-Approved Keyed Cable Gun Lock.

Long Guns

Per the California DOJ, long guns (rifles and shotguns) are not covered under Penal Code 25400, so they are not required to be transported in a locked container. But, they do need to be unloaded to be lawfully transported. 

If you have a long gun that is defined as an assault weapon, different provisions are in place that must be followed, which are found in Penal Code 25610. 

Mind the Local Laws

We strive to provide the best information possible, but firearms regulations are always fluid. We recommend your first stop be the Attorney General’s Bureau of Firearms page. This provides all state-level requirements in a series of links that are open to the public for viewing. 

Beyond the state level, local regulations are far too numerous to research or mention. Contact your county sheriff and local police department and ask them to direct you to specific local information if you can’t find it on your own. 

Firearms are a hot-button issue, and legal ownership is a complicated process in California. It is YOUR responsibility to ensure you are following all of the applicable rules all the time.

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