How to Buy a Gun in California (Legally)

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Last Updated on March 31, 2021.
How to Buy a Gun in California (Legally)

If you’re a California resident, you may wonder how, or even if, you can buy a gun. The quick answer is that firearms are legal in the Golden State, but they’re more tightly regulated than in most U.S. jurisdictions. Here is what the process entails.


California Gun Laws

California has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country. If you want to own a gun as a California resident, you should understand the laws and what you can and can’t buy.


Buying a Gun Outside of California

To understand the differences in California’s process, it’s important to know the procedure for firearm purchases outside of the Golden State. To purchase a firearm from a federal firearms licensee (FFL), such as a gun store, you need to meet the following requirements.

You need to be at least 18 years of age for rifles and shotguns and show proof of ID. This can be a driver’s license, valid U.S. passport, etc. The same applies to ammunition for these types of weapons. If you want to buy a handgun, you need to be at least 21.

You cannot be a convicted felon or have a domestic violence misdemeanor on your record. You must not be a fugitive from justice or an illegal immigrant. You cannot have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution or adjudicated mentally defective or judged incompetent to manage your affairs. 

If you’re a habitual user or addicted to a controlled substance, you’re also disqualified. This applies to medicinal or recreational marijuana in those states and localities where it’s legal. The federal government doesn’t recognize the legality of marijuana for either purpose. 

You’ll fill out a Firearms Transaction Record (ATF Form 4473), and the FFL will contact the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). The NICS staff will conduct a background check, checking the information you provided against the National Crime Information Center. If there are no criminal convictions or other reasons to deny the transaction, the NICS staff will advise the FFL to proceed, and you can take possession of your new firearm. 

Where California Differs

California does not have a reputation for being a gun-friendly state, and it’s easy to understand why once you know what the regulatory landscape looks like. Some of California’s regulations mirror those at the federal level. Others are different and more onerous

For example, there is no current federally required waiting period for firearms purchases, but California and some other states impose their own. 

The first thing you’ll need is a Firearms Safety Certificate. This is California’s firearms license. You’ll need this to buy or take possession of a gun unless you can show that you have a valid hunting license. The California Department of Justice issues firearms safety certificates to applicants who pass a written exam

Firearms Eligibility

If you’re unsure whether you have a record in California that would prohibit you from purchasing a firearm, you can request a California Personal Firearms Eligibility Check (PFEC) by sending an application to the DOJ. 

Roster of Certified Handguns

The California Department of Justice maintains a list of certified handguns. This list contains a total of 805 weapons, including everything from .38-caliber snub-nosed revolvers to modern striker-fired 9mm semi-automatic pistols. It is continually being updated.

For a handgun to be approved for sale in the state of California, it must pass firing, safety, and drop tests. 

Buying a gun in California can be broken down as follows:

  • All firearms transfers must be conducted through a licensed dealer — this includes private sales and gifts. 
  • California imposes a mandatory 10-day waiting period on all firearms transferees. Before you can take possession of a firearm, you have to wait 240 hours from the time of purchase to the time of receipt. 
  • If you’re less than 21 years of age, a licensed dealer cannot sell or otherwise transfer a firearm to you. There are two exceptions to this rule: If you’re attempting to purchase a long gun and have a valid hunting license or are an active law enforcement/peace officer.

According to the Dealer’s Record of Sale (DROS) process, you are required to demonstrate clear evidence of identity and age to the dealer. There are some kinds of ID documents that meet this requirement. 

An example is a California Driver’s License or Identification Card issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). This license or ID card should be valid. In addition to proof of ID, if you intend to purchase a handgun, you’ll need to show proof of California residency. This is similar to providing proof of residency when applying for a driver’s license or ID card — e.g., a dated utility bill addressed to you.

One Handgun Per Month

While there is no restriction on the total number of firearms, including handguns, that you can buy or own, there is an unusual regulation for California residents. You can only purchase one handgun in a 30-day period

Registration

When you purchase a firearm, the licensed dealer automatically registers your weapon at the point of sale. Under certain circumstances, such as moving to the state and importing firearms, you may need to fill out and submit a Firearm Ownership Report Application

Buying Ammo

What may surprise you is that you have to complete a background check to buy ammunition. The same proof of ID and residency requirements that apply to a gun purchase also applies to ammunition.  


​What’s Next

California’s gun laws are more complicated than those of several other states, but they’re not insurmountable. You must meet the same requirements that the federal government imposes, but you also need to have a Firearm Safety Certificate, show valid proof of ID, complete a background check, and wait 10 days. If you want to buy a handgun, it has to be on the DOJ’s approved list.


In Summary

New or existing residents of California can rest assured that they can legally own firearms. The process is more complicated than neighboring states such as Nevada and Arizona. But if you follow these steps, you can own a firearm to protect your home and family in the Golden State.