See our Gun Dealers policy summary for a comprehensive discussion of this issue.
Firearms dealers in California are subject to various statutory requirements, as described below. These requirements concern:
(1) Dealer licensing;
(2) The transfer of firearms and ammunition;
(3) The posting of warnings;
(4) The reporting of lost or stolen firearms;
(5) The storage of firearms;
(6) Employee background checks; and
(7) Reporting records regarding firearm inventory.
For further information beyond that provided below, see California Department of Justice (“DOJ”)’s FAQs for Licensed Dealers.
Local governments in California have authority to regulate firearms dealers and ammunition sellers. (Giffords Law Center has drafted a model ordinance for use by California cities and counties that regulates firearms dealers and ammunition sellers. For more information, please contact the Law Center directly and see our section entitled Local Authority to Regulate Firearms in California).
(1) Licensing Requirements
Federal law requires firearms dealers to obtain a license from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (“ATF”), although resource limitations prevent the ATF from properly overseeing all its licensees.
People who regularly sell, transfer, or loan firearms in California must also generally be licensed by the California Department of Justice, pursuant to state law.1 There are several exceptions to this dealer licensing requirement, including for:
- People who are selling firearms pursuant to court orders or acting pursuant to operation of law;2
- The “infrequent” sale, lease, or transfer of firearms;3
- The sale, lease, or transfer of used long guns at gun shows (subject to several conditions);4
- Sales, deliveries, or transfers between wholesalers, importers and manufacturers, and between dealers and wholesalers, importers or manufacturers;5
- Firearm loans that take place at a shooting range for the purpose of shooting at targets;6 and
- The loan of a firearm to a gunsmith for service or repairs.7
In order to become a California firearms dealer, a person must:
- Have a valid federal firearms license from ATF;
- Have any regulatory or business license(s) required by local government;
- Have a valid seller’s permit issued by the State Board of Equalization;
- Have a Certificate of Eligibility (“COE”) issued by DOJ demonstrating that DOJ has checked its records and determined that the applicant is not prohibited from acquiring or possessing firearms ;8
- Have an annual license granted by the duly constituted licensing authority of any city, county, or city and county (if the local jurisdiction does not have a dealer licensing system, the dealer must obtain and provide to DOJ a letter to this effect from the local licensing authority9); and
- Be on DOJ’s centralized list of all persons licensed to sell firearms.10
Dealers are required to renew their business licenses every year.12
(2) Transfer of Firearms & Ammunition
For laws requiring dealers to conduct a background check on prospective firearm purchasers, see the Background Checks in California section. For laws requiring dealers to report firearm transactions to the DOJ, and to maintain records of firearms transactions, see the section entitled Retention of Sales / Background Check Records in California.
A California firearms dealer may not deliver a firearm:
- During the state’s ten-day waiting period, or while DOJ has placed the sale on hold (see the Waiting Periods in California section for more details);
- Unless unloaded and securely wrapped, or unloaded and in a locked container;
- Unless the purchaser, transferee, or person being loaned the firearm presents clear evidence of the person’s identity and age to the dealer;
- Whenever the dealer is notified by DOJ that the person is prohibited by state or federal law from processing, owning, purchasing, or receiving a firearm.13
Dealers are also required to:
- Offer to provide a copy of the DOJ pamphlet which summarizes California firearms laws, and may add the cost of the pamphlet, if any, to the sales price of the firearm;14 and
- Ensure that the purchaser obtains or has obtained a firearms safety device listed on DOJ’s roster of approved firearms safety devices.15 For more information about firearms safety devices, see the Locking Devices in California section.
In addition, firearms dealers are prohibited from delivering a firearm to a purchaser or transferee unless that person:
- Presents a Firearm Safety Certificate (“FSC”) or a Handgun Safety Certificate (“HSC”) which is not yet expired;16 and
- Performs a safe handling demonstration with the firearm being purchased (see the Licensing of Gun Owners or Purchasers in California section for more information on these requirements).
Finally, firearms dealers are prohibited from delivering a handgun to a purchaser or transferee unless that person submits documentation indicating that they are a California resident;17
DOJ may require firearms dealers to charge each purchaser an administrative fee to be used to cover DOJ’s costs associated with overseeing and enforcing laws regarding the sale, purchase, possession, loan or transfer of firearms.18
The packaging and any descriptive materials that accompany any firearm manufactured in California, or sold or transferred by a dealer, including private transfers conducted through a dealer, must bear a label containing the following warning statement in both English and Spanish:
A yellow triangle containing an exclamation mark must appear immediately before the word “Warning” on the label.20 Effective June 1, 2020, this firearm warning label must also include a specified statement regarding the national suicide prevention hotline number.21
Dealers who sell long gun safes that do not meet certain standards are also required to attach warnings regarding those long gun safes. See the Locking Devices in California section for further information.
All licensed firearms dealers must process private party transfers of long guns upon request. Licensed dealers who sell, transfer, or stock handguns must also process private party handgun transactions.22
Proposition 63, passed by California voters in 2016, also requires ammunition sellers to obtain an ammunition vendor business license and to conduct background checks on their purchasers in a manner similar to firearm sales. Licensed firearms dealers are automatically deemed licensed ammunition vendors, provided that they comply with the legal obligations placed on ammunition sellers.23 See the Ammunition Regulation in California section for further information.
For other laws applicable to both licensed and private firearm sales, please see the Private Sales in California section.
(3) Posted Warnings
California firearms dealers must conspicuously post certain specified warnings regarding, among other things:
- California’s child access prevention laws ;24
- The likelihood of lead exposure when handling firearms or ammunition;
- The federal regulation that requires a purchaser to pick up his or her firearm from the dealer within 30 days of completing a background check ; and
- California’s prohibition against purchasing more than one handgun per month.25
The warnings must be posted in block letters not less than one inch in height.26
(4) Reporting of Lost or Stolen Firearms
Dealers must report the loss or theft of any firearm within 48 hours of discovery to the appropriate law enforcement agency in the city, county, or city and county in California where the dealer’s business premises are located.27 After passage of Proposition 63, dealers are now also required to report the loss or theft of ammunition to local law enforcement.28
(5) Storage of Firearms
Subject to very narrow exceptions, all firearms in the inventory of a licensed California firearms dealer must be kept at the dealer’s licensed location.29
Any time a dealer is not open for business, he or she must secure all firearms stored at the licensed place of business using one of the following methods for each particular firearm:
- Store the firearm in a “secure facility” that is a part of, or that constitutes, the licensee’s business premises;30
- Secure the firearm with a hardened steel rod or cable of at least one-eighth inch in diameter through the trigger guard of the firearm. The steel rod or cable must be secured with a hardened steel lock that has a shackle. The lock and shackle must be protected or shielded from the use of a bolt cutter and the rod or cable must be anchored in a manner that prevents the removal of the firearm from the premises; or
- Store the firearm in a locked fireproof safe or vault in the licensee’s business premises.31
- Dealers who sell ammunition must also sell or display the ammunition in a manner that ensures it remains inaccessible to a purchaser without the assistance of the dealer or employee.32
The licensing authority in an unincorporated area of a county or within a city may impose stricter security requirements than those specified above.33
A dealer may not display a handgun or imitation handgun, or placard advertising the sale or other transfer of a handgun or imitation handgun, in any part of the premises where it can readily be seen from the outside.34
(6) Employee Background Checks
California law (enacted by Proposition 63) requires that any agent or employee of a firearm dealer who handles, sells, or delivers firearms in the course of a dealer’s business must obtain and provide to the dealer a certificate of eligibility (COE) from DOJ verifying that he or she has passed a background check and is eligible to handle and possess firearms.35 DOJ is required to notify the dealer in the event that the agent or employee having a COE is or becomes prohibited from possessing firearms.36
A dealer must prohibit any agent or employee who the dealer knows or reasonably should know is within a class of persons prohibited from possessing firearms from coming into contact with any firearm that is not secured.37
The city or county where the dealership is located may also:
- Conduct an additional background check on the dealer’s agents or employees;
- Prohibit employment based on criminal history that does not appear as part of obtaining a COE, provided that the local jurisdiction may not charge a fee for the additional criminal history check; or
- Enact an ordinance imposing additional conditions on dealers with regard to agents.38
If the city or county in which the dealer operates requires a background check of dealer’s agents or employees, an agent or employee must obtain a COE from DOJ demonstrating his or her eligibility to possess firearms.39
(7) Reporting Records Regarding Firearm Inventory
Dealers must report the acquisition of any firearm to DOJ on the date the firearm is received.40 However, this reporting requirement does not apply to firearms that the dealer receives from wholesalers, federally licensed importers, manufacturers, or out-of-state dealers.41
- Cal. Penal Code § 26500.
- Cal. Penal Code § 26505. The phrase “operation of law” includes, but is not limited to, any of the following: 1) the executor or administrator of an estate, if the estate includes firearms; 2) a secured creditor when the firearms are possessed as collateral for, or as a result of, a default under a security agreement; 3) a levying officer; 4) a receiver, if the receivership estate includes firearms; 5) a trustee in bankruptcy, if the bankruptcy estate includes firearms; 6) an assignee for the benefit of creditors, if the assignment includes firearms; 7) a transmutation of property between spouses; 8) firearms received by the family of a deceased police officer or deputy sheriff from a local agency; or 9) the transfer of a firearm by a law enforcement agency to the person who found the firearm as the finder of the firearm. Cal. Penal Code § 16960.
- Cal. Penal Code § 26520. “Infrequent” is defined as no more than six transactions per calendar year and no more than 50 total firearms per calendar year. Cal. Penal Code § 16730. See 2019 CA SB 376.
- Cal. Penal Code § 26525.
- Cal. Penal Code §§ 26530, 26560.
- Cal. Penal Code § 26545.
- Cal. Penal Code § 26587. For a complete list of exceptions to this requirement, see Cal. Penal Code §§ 26505-26590.
- Cal. Code Regs. tit. 11, § 4031(g). For regulations pertaining to the issuance of a COE, see Cal. Code Regs. tit. 11, §§ 4036-4041.
- Cal. Penal Code § 26705.
- Cal. Penal Code § 26700(f). See Cal. Code Regs. tit. 11, §§ 4016-4024 for regulations regarding DOJ’s centralized list of all persons licensed to sell firearms. For more information about the use of this list, see “Shipments into California” under the Trafficking in California section.
- Cal. Penal Code § 26805.
- A COE term must not exceed one year. Cal. Code Regs. tit. 11, § 4039. In addition, the term of a centralized list placement is from January 1 through December 31. Cal. Code Regs. tit. 11, § 4021(a). To remain in compliance with the law, dealers must renew these licenses each year.
- Cal. Penal Code § 26815.
- Cal. Penal Code § 26865. A copy of the booklet is also available on DOJ’s website, at: http://oag.ca.gov/sites/all/files/agweb/pdfs/firearms/pdf/cfl2013.pdf?.
- Cal. Penal Code § 23635.
- Cal. Penal Code §§ 26840, 27540, 31615. With specified exceptions, any loan of a handgun also requires that the recipient have a valid FSC or HSC. Cal. Penal Code § 27540.
- Cal. Penal Code § 26845. Valid proof of residency includes, but is not limited to, a utility bill from the past three months, a residential lease, a property deed, or military permanent duty station orders indicating assignment within this state. The dealer is required to retain a copy of the residency documentation as proof of compliance. Cal. Penal Code § 26845.
- Cal. Penal Code § 28225.
- Cal. Penal Code §§ 23635, 23640.
- Cal. Penal Code § 23640. If the firearm is sold or transferred without accompanying packaging, the warning label must be affixed to the firearm itself. Id. The warning must be displayed “in conspicuous and legible type in contrast by typography, layout, or color with other printed matter on that package or descriptive materials…” Id.
- 2019 CA AB 645, repealing and replacing Cal. Penal Code § 23640.
- Cal. Penal Code § 28065.
- Cal. Penal Code §§ 16151(b).
- Cal. Penal Code § 26835(d).
- For the complete text of the required warnings, see Cal. Penal Code § 26835. The federal regulation that requires the transfer of a firearm to take place within 30 days of the background check exists at 27 C.F.R. § 478.102(c).
- Cal. Penal Code § 26835.
- Cal. Penal Code § 26885.
- Cal. Penal Code §§ 23885(b).
- Cal. Penal Code § 26885.
- A “secure facility,” as defined by Cal. Penal Code § 17110, means a building that meets all of the following specifications: (A) All perimeter doorways must be equipped with one of the following: (i) A windowless steel security door equipped with both a dead bolt and a doorknob lock. (ii) A windowed metal door that is equipped with both a dead bolt and a doorknob lock. If the window has an opening of five inches or more measured in any direction, the window must be covered with steel bars of at least one-half inch diameter or metal grating of at least nine gauge affixed to the exterior or interior of the door. (iii) A metal grate that is padlocked and affixed to the licensee’s premises independent of the door and doorframe. (B) All windows are covered with steel bars. (C) Heating, ventilating, air-conditioning, and service openings are secured with steel bars, metal grating, or an alarm system. (D) Any metal grates have spaces no larger than six inches wide measured in any direction. (E) Any metal screens have spaces no larger than three inches wide measured in any direction. (F) All steel bars must be no further than six inches apart. Cal. Penal Code § 17110.
- Cal. Penal Code § 26890.
- Cal. Penal Code § 30350.
- Cal. Penal Code § 26890(b).
- Cal. Penal Code § 26820.
- Cal. Penal Code § 26915.
- Cal. Penal Code § 26915(b). Local jurisdictions in California may require the agents or employees of a firearms dealer to go through a background check, in which case each agent or employee must obtain a COE from DOJ demonstrating his or her eligibility to possess firearms. Cal. Penal Code § 26915(c).
- Cal. Penal Code § 26915(e). A firearm is properly secured from a restricted employee or agent if the firearm is: 1) Inoperable because it is secured by a firearms safety device listed on DOJ’s roster of approved devices under Cal. Penal Code § 23655; 2) Stored in a locked gun safe or long gun safe which meets the standards for DOJ-approved gun safes under Cal. Penal Code § 23650; 3) Stored in a distinct locked room or area in the building that is used to store firearms that can only be unlocked by a key, a combination, or similar means; or 4) Secured with a hardened steel rod or cable that is at least one-eighth of an inch in diameter through the trigger guard of the firearm. The steel rod or cable must be secured with a hardened steel lock that has a shackle. The lock and shackle must be protected or shielded from the use of a bolt cutter and the rod or cable must be anchored in a manner that prevents the removal of the firearm from the premises. Cal. Penal Code § 26915(g). The dealer must also prohibit the agent or employee from accessing any key, combination, code, or other means to open any of the locking devices listed in § 26915(g). Cal. Penal Code § 26915(e).
- Cal. Penal Code § 26915 (c), (d), (f).
- Cal. Penal Code § 26915(c).
- Cal. Penal Code § 26905(a). Prior to January 1, 2014, this requirement applied only to handguns.
- Cal. Penal Code § 26905(b). All other exceptions to this requirement are listed in this subsection.