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California law prohibits any person from manufacturing, importing into California for sale, offering for sale, giving or lending an “unsafe handgun.”1 In general, an unsafe handgun is any handgun that lacks an appropriate safety, that does not meet the state’s firing requirement, or that does not meet the state’s drop safety requirement.2 However, handguns sold through private or secondary sales are not required to comply with these requirements.3

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.4 The laboratory must fire 600 rounds of certain ammunition from each gun, stopping at specified intervals.5 A handgun model passes the test if each of the three test guns:

• Fires the first 20 rounds without a malfunction that is not due to ammunition that fails to detonate;6 and

• 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.7

Following the handgun firing requirements, 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.8 The handgun model passes this test if each of the three test guns does not fire the primer.9

The California Department of Justice (“DOJ”) publishes and maintains a roster listing all handguns that have been tested by a certified testing laboratory, determined not to be unsafe handguns, and that may be sold in California.10

An “unsafe handgun” also includes:

• Any center-fire semiautomatic pistol that is not already listed on the roster as of January 1, 2006, and does not have either a chamber load indicator,11 or a magazine disconnect mechanism;12

• Any rimfire semiautomatic pistol that is not already listed on the roster as of January 1, 2006, and does not have a magazine disconnect mechanism, if it has a detachable magazine;13 and

• Any center-fire semiautomatic pistol that is not already listed on the roster as of January 1, 2007, and does not have both a chamber load indicator or, if it has a detachable magazine, a magazine disconnect mechanism.14

 Due to a law that became effective January 1, 2010, new models of semiautomatic pistols sold in California are required to have microstamping technology integrated into the pistol design, or the handgun will be deemed an “unsafe handgun.”15 For more information on this groundbreaking technology, see our Microstamping/Ballistic Identification in California section.

Unfortunately, the firearm industry has functionally exploited the grandfathering clauses in much of California’s Unsafe Handgun Act by refusing to introduce new models in California markets that incorporate magazine disconnect mechanisms, chamber load indicators, and microstamping technology.

 See our Design Safety Standards policy summary for a comprehensive discussion of this issue. 

  1. 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).[]
  2. Cal. Penal Code § 31910. 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). DOJ is required to maintain a program that exempts any qualifying new models of competitive handguns from state testing requirements and/or assault weapon regulation. Cal. Penal Code § 32105(c). USA Shooting, the national governing body for international shooting competition in the United States, or any other organization that DOJ deems relevant, may recommend handgun models for DOJ evaluation. Id. 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).[]
  3. Cal. Penal Code §§ 27545, 32110(a).[]
  4. Cal. Penal Code § 31905. For detailed DOJ regulations regarding laboratory certification and handgun testing procedures, see Cal. Code Regs. tit. 11, §§ 4047-4075.[]
  5. The laboratory must stop after each series of 50 rounds has been fired for five to ten minutes to allow the weapon to cool, stopping after each series of 100 rounds has been fired to tighten any loose screws and clean the gun, and stopping as needed to refill the empty magazine or cylinder to capacity before continuing. Cal. Penal Code § 31905(b)(1). 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) .[]
  6. “Malfunction” means a failure to properly feed, fire, or eject a round, or failure of a pistol to accept or reject a manufacturer-approved magazine, or failure of a pistol’s slide to remain open after a manufacturer-approved magazine has been expended. Cal. Penal Code § 31905(c)(1), (e).[]
  7. Cal. Penal Code § 31905(c)(2).[]
  8. Cal. Penal Code § 31900.[]
  9. Cal. Penal Code § 31900(d) .[]
  10. 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.[]
  11. Cal. Penal Code § 31910(b)(4). A “chamber load indicator” is a device that plainly indicates that a cartridge is in the firing chamber. Cal. Penal Code § 16380. A device satisfies this definition if it “is readily visible, has incorporated or adjacent explanatory text or graphics, or both, and is designed and intended to indicate to a reasonably foreseeable adult user of the pistol, without requiring the user to refer to a user’s manual or any other resource other than the pistol itself, whether a cartridge is in the firing chamber.” Id.[]
  12. 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.[]
  13. Cal. Penal Code § 31910(b)(6).[]
  14. Cal. Penal Code § 31910(b)(5). Pursuant to Cal. Penal Code § 32010, any pistols which do not possess the required chamber load indicator and magazine disconnect mechanism cannot be submitted for testing to be added to DOJ’s roster of handguns available for sale in California.[]
  15. Cal. Penal Code § 31910(b)(7).[]