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How To Buy A Gun In California

California is one of the largest and most populated states in the union, known for our beaches, mountains, military bases, Hollywood, and a whole lot more — we’re also known as one of the worst states for gun owners to live in. Even something as simple as how to buy a gun in California is a lot more complex than it should be.

But if you’re one of the millions of people that want to live in California and own firearms, you might need some help with getting started.

From guns to ammo and everything else, we’ve got all the info you need to buy a gun in California!

A personal favorite of mine, El Capitan in Yosemite.

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How Hard Is It To Buy A Gun In California?

Buying a firearm in CA isn’t as bad as you might think. It’s not as easy as it is in most other states, but the extra laws are more annoying than actually hard.

The biggest issue to deal with is that you need the right paperwork, your paperwork needs to match, and you need to not be in a rush. At a bare minimum, it will take 10 days from start to finish.

Federal Law: Are You A “Prohibited Person”?

This will apply to any state in the union so it’s good to talk about it first. The second amendment grants you the right to own and keep firearms, however, as with all rights it comes with some terms and conditions. 

The biggest of these is that you cannot own, buy, or even use a firearm if you are a “prohibited person” — basically, someone who lost their gun rights.

How do you become a prohibited person? Here’s the list:

  • Persons who have been convicted in any court of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding 1 year 
  • Fugitives from justice
  • Persons who are unlawful users of or are addicted to narcotics or any other controlled substances (including medical marijuana)
  • Persons adjudicated as a mental defective or who have been committed to a mental institution (although relief may be available under the 2008 NICS Improvement Act)
  • Aliens illegally in the U.S.
  • Military veterans discharged under dishonorable conditions
  • People who have renounced U.S. citizenship
  • Persons convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence 
  • Persons subject to a court order that restrains them from harassing, stalking or threatening an intimate partner or child of such intimate partner or person, or engaging in other conduct that would place an intimate partner in reasonable fear of bodily injury to the partner or child

That’s the big bad list, but there are some finer points to talk about since they come up often.

“Punishable by 1 year”

Mostly this means felonies, if you have a felony conviction you cannot buy a gun. But it also covers misdemeanors that carry longer terms. However, this is not applicable if you had the conviction expunged or set aside or pardoned or had your rights restored to you.

If you have a conviction and you want to legally buy a gun, you might want to talk to a lawyer first to get the details on if you can or if you need to have your rights restored first.

Marijuana

California allows for medical and recreational use of marijuana, but it is still listed as a schedule 1 drug by the federal government. Legally according to federal law if you use marijuana, for any reason, you cannot buy or own firearms. However, this is wildly unenforced — especially in California. 

Even still, if you use marijuana and check “No” to question 11(e) on ATF Form 4473, you’re breaking federal law and technically you can get into a LOT of trouble for it.

Mental Health

Going to a therapist does NOT make you a prohibited person. Having depression, diagnosed or not, does NOT make you a prohibited person. Having suicidal thoughts, anxiety, or anger issues does not make you a prohibited person.

Getting the mental heal care you need does NOT make you a prohibited person.

Being forcibly committed to a mental institution or being adjudicated as being mentally defective DOES make you a prohibited person.

California law has something called a “5150” hold, that’s just the name of the part of the law that covers it, but it means that you can be held involuntarily for up to 72-hours if you’re experiencing a mental health crisis and the police feel you need to be evaluated. 

A 5150 hold does NOT make you a prohibited person IF you were released from the hold. If you were held on a 5150 and then admitted to an inpatient facility, you are prohibited from buying a firearm under CA law for 5 years.

If you are held for a 5150 hold and admitted to an inpatient facility twice in one year you are prohibited from buying a firearm for life.

How To Buy A Rifle Or Shotgun In California

This is the easiest to buy but still takes a bit of jumping through hoops.

Right off the bat — if you’re 18-20 you can only buy a .22 LR rifle or a shotgun, nothing else. Period.

BRN-22 Takedown, perfect for the young adult wanting to get into firearms!

21+ can buy any rifle, handgun, or shotgun.

You’ll need a Firearm Safety Certificate — this is a 25 question multiple-choice test you have to take (and pass) before buying a firearm. The certificate lasts for 5 years and is only required to buy firearms. The FSC fee is $25, any gun store will be able to give you the test.

Some basic understanding about firearms is helpful with the test, but really if you just pick the most restrictive option for every question — you’ll probably pass. Try your hand at some practice tests before going for the real thing!

After the FSC you’ll also need your ID — either a driver’s license or identification card. If your ID says “Federal limits apply” you’ll also need proof of citizenship or legal status, so any of these:

  • Passport
  • Birth certificate
  • Certification of Birth Abroad (FS-545), Certification of Report of Birth (DS-1350) or Consular Report of Birth Abroad of a Citizen of the United States of America (FS-240), issued by the U.S. Department of State.
  • Valid, unexpired foreign passport with valid U.S. immigrant visa and approved Record of Arrival/Departure (I-94) form.
  • Certified copy of birth certificate from a U.S. Territory.
  • Certificate of Naturalization or U.S. Citizenship.
  • Valid, unexpired Permanent Resident Card.

Again, you only need the additional document if you do NOT have a Real ID. And you only need 1 off of the list, not all of them.

If your ID/driver’s license has the gold bear, you’re good to go!

Choose Your Firearm

Once you have all the paperwork, pick out your gun!

18-20 year olds are limited to just .22 LR rifles or shotguns, but for the rest of us that are over 21, we can pick whatever… kind of. More on that later.

For rifles and shotguns, this means anything that isn’t an “assault weapon”. The term “assault weapon” is a stupid name given by the CA legal code to firearms that have cosmetic features that make them scary. I’m not joking. The bottom line is that they are banned, so anything you buy will need to not be one of those.

For things like modern sporting rifles such as the AR-15, this means some interesting workarounds that we’ll cover later.

However, for things like bolt-action rifles, pump shotguns, and to an extent semi-auto shotguns, the assault weapon law doesn’t impact them much.

Anything your local gun store has, that isn’t for law enforcement only, is something they can sell you. No gun store will sell you something that you can’t legally own. 

After you pick out the gun and show them your papers you’ll need to fill out some paperwork.

More Paperwork & “Fees”

Federally, you need to fill out Form 4473. This basically asks a lot of questions like name, age, what you’re buying, and if you’re allowed to buy it.

Lying on this form is a FELONY. But, one that is almost never pursued.

Mistakes on this form are NOT the same thing as lying. If you weigh 210 lbs and you write 190, the ATF won’t come for you.

People make little mistakes all the time, don’t sweat it if you do. Just don’t lie.

After all your paperwork is done, you’ll pay $31 to California state for a background check (in addition to the federal check that is done).

Ten days later, assuming everything checked out, you can return to the gun store to pick up your goodies!

If you want to buy more guns… you might have to wait. There is a 1 purchase in 30-day wait for handguns and semi-auto centerfire rifles. Private party sales do not count towards this limit. There is no such limit on shotguns.

How To Buy A Pistol In California

This process is a lot like buying a rifle or shotgun, but with a little extra hardship because of course, it can’t be easy.

Handguns everyone MUST be over 21, no exceptions.

You’ll still need an FSC and your ID but you’ll also need an extra piece of proof that you live in California. A utility bill, car registration, or lease agreement are the most common — but there are other options also.

Caption: A campfire permit is acceptable. No really, it is.

While all of these can be accepted, it is up to the gun store on what they actually will accept. All of these documents need to have your name and address on them and MUST match your ID and what you put down on the DROS.

  • Utility bill from within the past three months 
  • Residential lease 
  • Property deed
  • Current, government-issued license, permit, or registration, other than a California Driver License or California Identification Card, that has a specified expiration date or period of validity

If you don’t have any of these documents, a hunting license, fishing license, or even a campfire permit are acceptable also and are very easy to get quickly. However, again, not all gun stores will let you even though the CA DOJ says they can. 

Talk to your gun store and see what works.

California Handgun Roster

This is the part that really sucks. California gun stores can only sell handguns that are on the roster of safe handguns or the California Handgun Roster. On top of everything else, this is the biggest block to buying a gun in California.

If it isn’t on the roster, you can’t buy it from a firearm dealer. You can’t ship one in from out of state, you can’t have a friend buy it, any of that.

If you can find a private party in California that wants to sell an off-roster firearm, you can buy it from them. If your father or mother, grandparents, or children lives outside of California and they want to gift an off-roster firearm to you, you can accept it through an FFL.

But basically — if it isn’t on the roster, you’re not getting it.

The roster is limited to older models that are basically being grandfathered in under our horrible pistol laws. 

While there are some great options like a wide range of Gen 3 Glocks, Beretta 92 FS, CZ P01, HK USP, Sig 220 series, and more — anything invented in the last ten years or so won’t be on the roster and never will be.

My Beretta 92FS with Wilson Combat thin grips. I love it.

For a complete list of what is on the roster, take a look at the CA DOJ website.

How To Buy An “Assault Weapon” In California

Bottom line — you can’t. “Assault weapons” as defined by California law are illegal, period. 

Instead, you’ll need to buy a gun that isn’t an “assault weapon” because it is missing some features.

What makes a normal gun an “assault weapon” you ask? While a lot of firearms are simply named specifically as being assault weapons, it also covers any weapon that possesses certain characteristics or combinations of characteristics. 

This goes for rifles, pistols, and shotguns — but the exact features differ slightly.

California legal “featureless” AR-15s. Top to bottom: Strike Industries fin grip, We Plead The Second fin grip, Sparrow Dynamics featureless grip

Assault Rifles

  • have a fixed capacity of more than 10 rounds,
  • have an overall length of fewer than 30 inches, or
  • do not have a fixed capacity, but have any of the following:
    • a pistol grip that conspicuously protrudes beneath the weapon’s action,
    • a forward pistol grip,
    • a thumbhole, folding, or telescoping stock,
    • a flash suppressor, or
    • a grenade or flare launcher.

Assault Shotguns

  • do not have a fixed magazine, or
  • have both of the following:
    • either a folding or telescoping stock, and
    • either a thumbhole stock, vertical handgrip or a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously under the weapon’s action.

Assault Pistols

  • those that have a fixed magazine of more than 10 rounds, or
  • those that do not have a fixed magazine, but does have one of the following aspects:
    • a threaded barrel that is capable of accepting a flash suppressor, silencer, or forward handgrip,
    • a second handgrip,
    • a barrel shroud that allows the weapon to be fired without burning the user’s hand, except a slide that encloses the barrel, or
    • the capacity to accept a detachable magazine outside the pistol grip

Staying California Compliant

So that’s what you can’t have. Sucks, right? There is some good news; because what is not allowed is well defined it’s pretty easy to just make guns that don’t have those features.

This makes our lives more annoying, but it works.

A normal AR-15 would be considered an assault rifle in California, but if you fix a 10 round magazine to it then you’re fine. Or you put a fin on the pistol grip, take off the flash hider, and lock the stock and you have a featureless rifle.

There are dozens of ways of avoiding these pitfalls but those are larger topics for another time. The bottom line, talk to your gun store and see what they have. They’ll keep you legal and you’ll get (mostly) what you’re looking for.

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How To Buy Magazines & Ammo In California

Magazines do not require anything special in terms of paperwork or permissions, but they do need to hold 10 rounds or less.

But you’ll see a lot of people with full-size magazines in California, back in early 2019 there was a 1 week period where buying full-capacity magazines was legal. People bought millions of magazines and (for now) can still legally use them.

However, we can’t buy anymore. For now.

Both of those might change depending on how some court cases go, but we’ll see. For now, new magazines need to be 10 rounds or less. 

And before you ask, no — you can’t buy full-capacity magazines from other CA residents who bought them legally. It is illegal to buy, sell, gift, make, or receive large-capacity magazines in CA.

Caption: (left to right): AR-15 10-round magazine, Beretta 92FS 10-round magazine, Beretta 92FS 15-round magazine, Magpul Gen 3 30-round AR-15 magazine

Ammo is more annoying since ammo now requires a background check through an ammunition vendor or FFL.

Buying ammo at a gun store is the easy way of doing this and only requires a $1 background check, IF you’re already in the system. If you’re not in the CA DOJ system it is a higher fee and a little paperwork. If you bought a firearm in the last 5 years, you’ll be in the system.

Buying ammo online is perfectly legal, but you cannot have it shipped to your door. Instead, it must go to an FFL/gun store where you’ll need to pick it up and do the background check.

Need some great places to buy ammo online? We got you covered!

Buying A Gun In California Quick Fact Sheet

Okay — I just threw a LOT of information at you so let’s break that down into some easier-to-digest pieces.

Required Paperwork

  • Firearm Safety Certificate (can be obtained at the gun store)
  • Driver’s license or CA State ID
    • If your ID says “federal limits apply” you’ll need a second proof of identity like a passport or birth certificate
    • Buying a handgun requires a second proof of residency such as a utility bill, car registration, or lease agreement
  • Fill out Form 4473 that the gun store gives you (don’t lie)
  • Pay fees, pay for the gun(s), etc.
  • Wait 10 days to pick up your firearms from the gun store.

Second Amendment, Terms and Conditions May Apply

  • Only pistols on the approved roster can be bought from a gun store.
  • Pistols and semi-automatic centerfire rifles are limited to 1 per 30 days.
    • Shotguns, rimfire semi-auto rifles, and all manually operated rifles are not limited
    • Private party sales are not limited.
  • Assault weapons are illegal.
    • There are “California compliant” models of most major modern sporting rifles
    • Firearms need to be CA legal before entering CA, they cannot be converted at the gun store except by very limited locations with special permits
  • When in doubt, talk to your gun store.

Magazines & Ammo

  • New magazines are limited to 10-rounds or fewer.
  • Magazines acquired during “Freedom week” are legal to own and use, but illegal to sell.
  • Ammo must be transferred via an approved vendor or FFL
    • Buy your ammo at the gun store to make it easy or,
    • Order online and have it shipped to your local store

Where To Buy In California

As much as big box stores can get a bad rap, Bass Pro and Sportsman’s Warehouse are great options if you live near one. The selection is good, the prices are decent (sometimes with awesome sales), and the customer service is normally really good.

Bass Pro helped me out a LOT when I bought my first gun and answered all my questions on how to buy a gun in California.

They even helped me by storing my new guns for almost two months for free because the DMV screwed up on my ID. They even offered to pay for my second DROS because they had missed the ID error before submitting my first DROS.

But not all chains are created equal. 

Turners is okay, but the prices are iffy and while the staff was normally great, I have had a couple of not-great moments with them. Everything also seems to take twice as long (at least) as it should. 

I will never step foot in an Ammo Brothers’ again. My experiences with them ranged from the staff being kind of inept to the store manager literally lying to me and threatening to call the ATF over a minor paperwork mistake that was 100% the responsibility of the FFL. After that, never again for me.

Southern California

I live down in SoCal so that’s where I know most of the local gun stores. 

My top recommendation down here is without question Second Amendment Zone in Upland. They’ve been my go-to people for a few years now and they have always been awesome.

Fast service, good prices, helpful people when you ask but also won’t push you if you don ask, and the owners really care about running a great business.

Plus, they have found multiple ways to provide legal goods to Californians that everyone else thought were impossible. Sig P320? Ya, they can hook you up. If you want someone to walk you through how to buy a gun in California, these dudes are the best.

For West LA, Burbank Ammo & Guns in Burbank is awesome.

Northern California

I’m not from around there, but I have friends in NorCal and they always have the same recommendations.

Richardson Tactical in Hayward is beloved by almost everyone that goes there, even people on CalGuns.com like them.

J&R Sports in Livermore has a great following and rave reviews.

Triple-A Sporting Goods in Vallejo reportedly has an outstanding selection of AR-15 and AR-15 parts.

Where To Shoot In California

Personally, I prefer BLM areas the most. BLM is the Bureau of Land Management, basically federally owned public land.

The Western USA is filled with BLM areas that offer outdoor recreation of all kinds from hunting to ATVs to shooting. 

It doesn’t look like much, but this is a great shooting spot

Caption: Hodge Road is a very popular public shooting spot just west of Barstow, CA. 

Take a look at the website and find some BLM areas that allow shooting near you and have at it. Just stay safe and clean up after.

If you’re looking for an actual range there are lots of good options.

Southern California

Angeles Shooting Ranges has rifle targets out to 600 yards and tons of room. They hold classes, allow shotguns, pistols, and rifles, and are by far the best range in the LA area. $21 per adult Mon – Fri, $25 on the weekend. No time limit and you can switch around where you’re shooting as you please. No firearms for rent.

Lytle Creek range is out near the 15 and the 210, awesome little range that goes out to 200 yards. Rifle, shotgun, and pistol allowed. Low price to get in ($20 for adults), no time limits, range staff are great. If I need to do some groups testing and don’t want to drive all the way to the desert to do it, Lytle Creek is where I go. They don’t rent firearms, so bring your own.

Route 66 Shooting Sports Park is a newer range that only opened about 2 years ago. I’ve never been, but I’ve heard that it’s pretty awesome. Private bays are for rent, the steel target gallery is awesome, and the facilities are great. But for me, the price is a bit high and the time limit kills it for me. When I go to the range, I’m there for 4-8 hours. Not 2. $30 for 2 hours on either the steel gallery or the 100-yard rifle range, $36 for 2 hours if you want to use both the steel and the rifle range. Private bays are $36 for 2 hours.

Wrapping Up

That was a LOT of information and I’m proud of you for getting through it all.

Something I would like to stress is that this process is made a lot easier by working with a good gun store. They’ll help you through the process and make sure you get what you’re looking for.

Help them help you by rereading the part about what paperwork you need so you come prepared!

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  1. Thank you, David. Your article provided comprehensive information on gun purchases in California. I plan to buy a Vector .45 ACP and I am still familiarizing myself with the gun laws. Appreciate the insights!

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