Assault Weapon Restrictions
With limited exceptions, California prohibits anyone from possessing an assault weapon (as defined by state law), unless they lawfully possessed the firearm prior to the date it was defined as an assault weapon and registered the firearm with the California Department of Justice (“DOJ”) within the timeframes established by state law.1
California also generally prohibits any person from manufacturing, distributing, transporting, importing, keeping for sale, offering for sale, giving, or lending an assault weapon within the state.2 DOJ may, upon a finding of good cause, issue permits for the manufacture, sale, or possession of assault weapons to certain law enforcement agencies and officers and to approved individuals over the age of 18.3 DOJ must conduct a yearly inspection – or every five years if the person to be inspected has fewer than five permitted devices – of every person to whom a permit is issued, for security and safe storage practices, and to reconcile the inventory of assault weapons.4 Generally, no lawfully possessed assault weapon may be sold or transferred to anyone within California other than to a licensed gun dealer or to a police or sheriff’s department.5
Definition of Assault Weapon
California law defines assault weapons in two ways:
First, state law includes a list of specific firearm models and types that are designated as assault weapons, including all AK series and Colt AR-15 series firearms.6 (California’s Attorney General is required to maintain an updated list specifying all such firearms).7
Second, California’s assault weapons law also designates firearms as assault weapons if they incorporate certain features most commonly used for offensive, instead of defensive, shooting purposes:8 Firearms that fall within any of the following categories are generally defined as assault weapons based on this features test:
- A semiautomatic, centerfire rifle that has the capacity to accept a detachable magazine and at least one of the following additional features:
(1) a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon;
(2) a thumbhole stock;
(3) a folding or telescoping stock;
(4) a grenade or flare launcher;
(5) a flash suppressor; or
(6) a forward pistol grip;9
- A semiautomatic, centerfire rifle that has a fixed magazine with the capacity to accept more than ten rounds;
- A semiautomatic, centerfire rifle that has an overall length of less than 30 inches;
- A semiautomatic pistol that has the capacity to accept a detachable magazine and any one of the following: 1) a threaded barrel, capable of accepting a flash suppressor, forward handgrip, or silencer; 2) a second handgrip; 3) a shroud that is attached to, or partially or completely encircles, the barrel allowing the bearer to fire the weapon without burning his or her hand, except a slide that encloses the barrel; or 4) the capacity to accept a detachable magazine at some location outside of the pistol grip;
- A semiautomatic pistol with a fixed magazine that has the capacity to accept more than ten rounds;
- A semiautomatic shotgun that has both a folding or telescoping stock, and a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon, thumbhole stock, or vertical handgrip;
- A semiautomatic shotgun that has the ability to accept a detachable magazine;
- A shotgun with a revolving cylinder; or
- A semiautomatic centerfire firearm that is not technically a rifle, pistol, or shotgun, if it either has a fixed magazine with the capacity to accept more than 10 rounds, has an overall length of less than 30 inches, or does not have a fixed magazine but has at least one of the features associated with assault weapons, as described above.10
Antique firearms (i.e., firearms manufactured prior to 1899)11, and certain pistols that are designed expressly for use in Olympic target shooting events, are generally not considered assault weapons.12 California law also does not ban kits that allow a person to convert a lawful firearm into an assault weapon.
Lawful Use of Registered Assault Weapons
California law provides important limitations on the use of lawfully registered assault weapons as well to protect the public safety. Unless are person obtains a special weapons permit from DOJ authorizing additional assault weapon uses, people owning lawfully registered assault weapons must generally only possess their assault weapons in the following circumstances:13
- At the person’s residence, place of business, or other property owned by that person, or on property owned by another with the owner’s express permission;
- While on certain target ranges and shooting clubs;
- While on publicly owned land if specifically permitted by the managing agency of the land; or
- While properly transporting the firearm between any of the places mentioned above, or to any licensed gun dealer for servicing and repair.14
California law includes a legislative declaration regarding the dangers assault weaponspresent to public safety:
“The Legislature hereby finds and declares that the proliferation and use of assault weapons poses a threat to the health, safety, and security of all citizens of this state. The Legislature has restricted the assault weapons specified in Section 30510 based upon finding that each firearm has such a high rate of fire and capacity for firepower that its function as a legitimate sports or recreational firearm is substantially outweighed by the danger that it can be used to kill and injure human beings.”15
California law also provides that the possession of an assault weapon in violation of state laws is a public nuisance. As a result, the Attorney General, any district attorney, or any city attorney may, in lieu of criminal prosecution, bring a civil action or reach a civil compromise in any superior court to enjoin the possession of the assault weapon that is a public nuisance.15
Regulating Assault Weapons is Constitutional
The courts have repeatedly rejected legal challenges to California’s assault weapons law.16
See DOJ’s Assault Weapon FAQs page for further information.
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- Cal. Penal Code § 30605. See generally Cal. Penal Code §§ 30600-30675, 30900-30965, 31000-31005. For state assault weapon regulations, see Cal. Code Regs. tit. 11, §§ 5459-5473, 5495, 5499. DOJ’s website also includes information about the development of these regulations.
- Cal. Penal Code § 30600.
- Cal. Penal Code §§ 31000, 31005.
- Cal. Penal Code § 31110
- Cal. Penal Code §§ 30910, 31100.
- Cal. Penal Code § 30510.
- Cal. Penal Code § 30520.
- Cal. Penal Code § 30515.
- In 2016, California enacted a law to provide a statutory definition for the term “detachable magazine” in order to clarify that so-called “bullet button” weapons are restricted assault weapons. The bullet button loophole previously allowed firearm manufacturers to sell “California-compliant” assault weapons equipped with a bullet button that allowed a shooter to use a bullet, wearable magnet, or other instrument, instead of his or her finger, to depress the button that releases the weapon’s magazine. Individuals who lawfully obtained these weapons prior to January 1, 2017, were authorized to retain them if they timely registered their weapons with DOJ. See Cal. Penal Code §§ 30515, 30680, 30900 (as amended by 2016 Cal. SB 880 and 2016 Cal. AB 1664).
- California passed legislation in 2020 to expand the definition of “assault weapon” to include these firearms in order to address efforts by the firearm industry to open a loophole in the law by developing new hybrid weapons that generally meet the definition of assault weapon but are not technically rifles, pistols, or shotguns. See 2020 CA SB 118, Sec. 38-39 (enacting Cal. Penal Code § 30515(a)(9) – (11) and Cal. Penal Code § 30685).
People who lawfully possess such weapons prior to September 1, 2020, are authorized to maintain possession of them if they lawfully register their weapon with DOJ by January 1, 2022. Cal. Penal Code §§ 30685; 30900.
- Cal. Penal Code § 16170(a).
- Cal. Penal Code § 30515(c) .
- Cal. Penal Code §§ 30945, 31000.
- The person may also possess the assault weapon while attending an exhibition, display, or educational project about firearms which is sponsored by, conducted under the auspices of, or approved by a law enforcement agency or a nationally or state recognized entity that fosters proficiency in, or promotes education about, firearms. Id .
- Cal. Penal Code § 30800(a). Any assault weapon possessed in violation of state laws must be destroyed, except upon finding by a court, or a declaration from DOJ, a district attorney, or a city attorney stating that the preservation of the assault weapon is in the interest of justice. Cal. Penal Code § 30800(c). State law also provides that when a person is convicted of any misdemeanor or felony involving the illegal use or possession of an assault weapon, the assault weapon in question must be deemed a public nuisance and disposed of pursuant to Cal. Penal Code § 18005(c). Cal. Penal Code § 30800(d).
- See Kasler v. Lockyer, 2 P.3d 581 (Cal. 2000) (holding, inter alia, that California’s assault weapons ban does not violate equal protection of the law because the statute does not burden a fundamental constitutional right to “bear arms,” as no such right exists under the California constitution). See also Silveira v. Lockyer, 312 F.3d 1052 (9th Cir. 2002) (rejecting federal constitutional challenges to the ban, holding, inter alia, that the Second Amendment only protects the collective right of the people to maintain well-regulated militias). Note, however, that the Supreme Court has subsequently held, in District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to keep and bear arms, unconnected with service in a militia. The Court in Heller noted, nevertheless, that the Second Amendment is consistent with laws banning “dangerous and unusual weapons.” Id. at 2817. Since the Heller decision, several federal courts have upheld assault weapons bans that were challenged on Second Amendment grounds. For more information, see our Post- Heller Litigation Summary section.