Federal law imposes no design safety standards on domestically manufactured firearms. In fact, the federal Consumer Product Safety Act exempts firearms from meeting even minimal safety standards, and has effectively created a protected market for “junk guns” that due to poor construction or design may jam, misfire, malfunction, or otherwise fail to alert a person that a firearm is loaded.
California’s state-level design safety standards for handguns have therefore been critical to helping prevent accidental shooting deaths and injuries.1
Since 2001, California’s Unsafe Handgun Act has established baseline design safety and certification standards for handguns and, accordingly, places restrictions on the manufacture, sale, importation, giving or lending of “unsafe handguns” that do not meet these minimum standards.2
This law requires that all newly developed handgun models meet basic reliability and safety standards in order to be certified for sale or manufacture by the state Department of Justice. While this law generally provides minimum safety standards for handguns that may be manufactured in the state, or sold by California’s gun dealers, it generally does not apply to new manufactures of older handgun models, or to handguns sold through private or secondary sales.3
The California Department of Justice (“DOJ”) publishes and maintains a roster listing all handguns that have been certified for sale in California under the Unsafe Handgun Act, after testing by a certified laboratory.4
In order to be certified and included on the DOJ roster, a newly developed handgun model must have an appropriate safety device and must pass:
- A firing test to confirm the gun can be fired multiple times without malfunctioning;5 and
- A drop safety test to confirm the firearm can be dropped without discharging.6
Subsequently enacted legislation also generally requires that most new semiautomatic pistol models developed after January 2007 also have:7
- A chamber load indicator to signify when the firearm is loaded; 8 and
- A magazine disconnect mechanism to prevent the gun from firing when a detachable magazine is removed.9
Finally, over a decade ago, California lawmakers expanded on the Unsafe Handgun Act by enacting the Crime Gun Identification Act, the nation’s first law mandating that newly developed semiautomatic pistol models incorporate microstamping technology to assist law enforcement in solving gun crimes.10 (For more information on this technology, see the Microstamping & Ballistics in California page).
California law currently requires newly developed semiautomatic models pistols to incorporate a microstamping mechanism in at least two places on the interior of the firearm.11 However, since this requirement only applies to new handgun models, the gun industry has been able to effectively obstruct this law (as well as the UHA’s chamber load indicator and magazine disconnect requirements) by simply refusing to develop new handgun models for sale in California. Instead, the industry has sought to undermine the UHA through litigation in state and federal courts, while simply continuing to sell new manufactures of older, less safe handgun models.
In 2020, California passed new legislation to address this obstruction and ensure more handguns certified for sale and manufacture in California come equipped with basic lifesaving consumer safety features as well as a microstamping mechanism.12 Starting July 1, 2022, this law directed DOJ to remove three older, less safe semiautomatic pistol models from its roster of certified handguns for every new microstamping, UHA-compliant model certified for sale in California. This new law sought to ensure that more commercially available handguns become fully compliant with California’s modern consumer safety laws over time and to ease compliance for the firearm industry by requiring new semiautomatic pistol models to microstamp ammunition cartridge cases from a single place on the interior of the firearm, instead of two places, as required by existing law.13
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- Since the Unsafe Handgun Act’s initial provisions went into effect in 2001, the rate of unintentional shooting deaths in California has fallen significantly, according to CDC Fatal Injury Data. In the five years before the Act went into effect, between 1996–2000, nearly 400 Californians died as a result of unintentional shootings. By 2014–18, the rate of unintentional shooting deaths in California had fallen by two-thirds.
- Cal. Penal Code § 32000(a). This requirement does not apply to firearms listed as “curios or relics,” as defined in Section 478.11 of Title 27 of the Code of Federal Regulations, or to the sale or purchase of a handgun by certain peace officers and various state and federal agencies, including police departments, the Department of Justice, and military forces, for use in the discharge of their official duties. Cal. Penal Code § 32000(b).
Pistols designed expressly for use in Olympic target shooting events that would normally fall within the definition of “unsafe handgun” under § 31910 are exempt from state handgun testing requirements. Cal. Penal Code § 32105(a)-(b). Furthermore, the state handgun testing requirements do not apply to the sale, loan, or transfer of any semiautomatic pistol that is to be used solely as a prop during the course of a motion picture, television, or video production by an authorized participant in such production while engaged in making that production or event, or by an authorized employee or agent of the entity producing that production or event. Cal. Penal Code § 32110(h).
- Cal. Penal Code §§ 27545, 32110(a).
- Cal. Penal Code § 32015(a). DOJ may retest up to five percent of handgun models listed on the roster annually. Cal. Penal Code § 32020. Three samples of each handgun model chosen must be retested using ammunition recommended by the manufacturer that is commercially available and in new condition. Cal. Penal Code § 32020(b). The Attorney General must remove from the roster any model that fails retesting. Cal. Penal Code § 32020(d). DOJ also maintains a list of handguns removed from the state roster.
- California’s handgun firing requirement is a test in which the manufacturer provides three unmodified handguns, of the make and model for which certification is sought, to an independent testing laboratory certified by the Attorney General. Cal. Penal Code § 31905. (For detailed DOJ regulations regarding laboratory certification and handgun testing procedures, see Cal. Code Regs. tit. 11, §§ 4047-4075. The laboratory must fire 600 rounds of certain ammunition from each gun, stopping at specified intervals. The ammunition used must be of the type recommended by the handgun manufacturer, or if none is recommended, any standard ammunition of the correct caliber in new condition that is commercially available. Cal. Penal Code § 31905(b)(1 ). A handgun model passes the test if each of the three tested guns: (1) Fires the first 20 rounds without a malfunction that is not due to ammunition that fails to detonate; and (2) Fires the full 600 rounds with no more than six malfunctions that are not due to ammunition that fails to detonate, and without any crack or breakage of an operating part of the handgun that increases the risk of injury to the user. Cal. Penal Code § 31905(c)(2).
- Following the handgun firing test described in the Note above, the same certified independent testing laboratory must subject the same three handguns to a series of six drop tests each, with a primed case (no powder or projectile) inserted into the chamber. The handgun model passes this test if each of the three test guns does not fire the primer.((Cal. Penal Code § 31900.
- Cal. Penal Code § 31910(b).
- A “chamber load indicator” is a device that plainly indicates that a cartridge is in the firing chamber. Cal. Penal Code § 16380.
- A “magazine disconnect mechanism” is a mechanism that prevents a semiautomatic pistol that has a detachable magazine from operating to strike the primer of ammunition in the firing chamber when a detachable magazine is not inserted in the semiautomatic pistol. Cal. Penal Code § 16900.
- Microstamping technology causes the firearm to etch a unique microscopic code identifying the handgun’s make, model, and serial number onto ammunition cartridge cases when the weapon is fired. This technology could enable law enforcement to match cartridges found at crime scenes directly to the gun that fired them, similar to the way an automobile’s license plate may be used to identify a vehicle’s make, model, VIN, and registered owner.
- Cal. Penal Code § 31910(b).
- See 2020 AB 2847.
- Cal. Penal Code § 31910(b)(7) (effective July 1, 2022).