Buying Guns and Ammo in California

California has a well-earned reputation for being one of the least permissive states in terms of buying, owning, and carrying firearms. Because of the sheer number of relevant laws, most of them prohibitions, bans, and limitations, this piece will focus mostly on those to help readers get a better sense of the laws in California that govern firearms and ammunition.

In addition to being home to some of the most restrictive ammo and gun laws in the country, the legal landscape in California is under current litigation. With that said, this piece should be considered neither legal advice nor the last word in the currently-evolving state of California’s gun laws. This piece aims to give an accurate sense of the laws in the state as they are today.

One good thing about California’s gun laws is that the state largely prevents localities from making their own gun laws that are stricter than those at the state level. Thus, once you get a sense of the gun laws within the state, as strict as they may be, those laws generally apply throughout the state as a whole (with limited exceptions).

Ammo Laws/Buying Ammo in California 

First, we will cover the ammo laws of the state.

Buying ammunition in California is an arduous process. Before purchasing any ammunition or firearms in the state at all, current state laws require that a person has an active “Certificate of Eligibility.”  It is, in effect, a first background check that issues you a certificate that allows the person to begin the process of buying firearms and ammunition in the state. Currently, the fee for this certificate is $71.00 and it can take up to eight weeks to process.

With that certificate in hand, every ammunition sale in the state requires a background check. It is the same background check that is run to get the certificate. Once that background check is complete (for an additional fee of up to $19.00, depending on precisely which kind of certificate one has with the state), and assuming all federal laws about age are met (18 to buy rifle and shotgun ammo, and 21 to buy handgun ammo), you can actually purchase the ammunition. It is very likely that buyers will be $90 and eight weeks into the process before actually purchasing any ammo.

Because a background check is required, all ammunition in the state has to be shipped to an FFL, or the buyer has to become an FFL themselves. The process is a lengthy and draconian one, so a flow chart can help with the process.

Once the buyer has the ammunition in hand, there is also a ban on what kind of magazines that ammunition can be put into: anyone who has a magazine of more than ten rounds can face fines or jail time.

The ammunition laws in California are the strictest in the country and make buying any volume of ammunition a lengthy and expensive venture. It is, for all practical purposes, impossible to legally ship ammunition into the state to residential addresses unless the buyer becomes an FFL. 

Gun Laws/Buying Guns in California 

Buying and carrying firearms in California is even more restrictive than the process for buying ammunition. Again, one has to have an active Certificate of Eligibility to make any firearms-related transactions in the state.

With that certificate in hand, there are a number of laws restricting what one can buy. For example, the state has an assault weapons ban that outlaws many firearms by name, as well as including a list of “features” such as grips, socks, and flash suppressors that, in effect, outlaw most semi-automatic long guns, and many pistols, without major modifications to fix a magazine, render the semi-automatic functionality useless, or the like. We’ll speak more on the legal status of this ban below.

In addition to the assault weapons ban, there is a list of handguns that are allowable to be purchased in the state. While this list is drawn up for “safety” reasons, it is, in effect, a ban insomuch that it is nearly impossible to acquire a handgun in the state that is not on that list, as no other handguns can legally be sold in the state.

If a buyer has a Certificate and wants to buy a firearm from the small percentage of firearms that are legal in California, the process does not stop there. First, one has to fill out the usual Form 4473 in addition to a California-specific background check. Upon clearance of the background check and payments, there is a ten-day waiting period on all firearms sales in the state.

All of this also applies to private-party sales, since the state requires that those go through an FFL, too.

The state additionally creates a registration of every firearms transaction, meaning that there is a state-held list of every legal gun owner in California.

At the time of writing of this piece, a federal judge has ruled the assault weapons ban in California unconstitutional. It’s unclear what that means for the immediate enforcement and future of the ban in legal terms. What is certain is that there will be some challenges and changes in the coming years. It would be fairly likely for the issue to end up in front of the Supreme Court in 2024.

Carrying firearms adds further restrictions to this already lengthy and expensive process.

Open carry is generally illegal in the state, but exemptions can be granted by the country sheriff in more rural areas.

Concealed carry is by permit, issued by local law enforcement, and is may issue. In California’s laws, may issue means that the local law enforcement agency can deny a permit for effectively any reason, and they do not necessarily have to articulate this reason. For instance, the county sheriff could simply not have hours for an appointment or deny an application because they get a bad feeling about a person. The may-issue component of the permit makes it difficult to get a concealed carry permit in the state.

The state’s instance that an applicant has to have “good moral character” and “good cause for the issuance of the license” opens the door for people to be denied a concealed carry permit without having even been accused of a crime that would make them a prohibited person: these are among the strictest concealed carry laws in the country.

Additionally, the fees for said permit can reach $300 in some cases, and will likely take months to process, requiring classes, meetings, background checks, and lots of paperwork. Because California’s permitting process is so strict, the permit is widely reciprocal with other states. 

Like most states, California maintains a list of places where no firearms are allowed, including:

  • Within 1,000 feet of a K-12 school

  • Colleges and Universities 

  • State and Local Public Buildings 

  • Courtrooms 

  • Public Meetings

  • Federal Facilities 

While this list is not unusual, there are, in some cases, borders that go well beyond the facility itself, making it legally perilous to carry in some places that might otherwise be allowable for concealed carry.

All things considered, the process for buying and carrying handguns in the state of California is a long, expensive process for people who are attempting to exercise their Second Amendment rights: California can be easily argued as the most restrictive state in the country in terms of its firearms laws.

While there aren’t many major gun manufacturers in the state, many manufacturers do make specific, CA-compliant models that make it at least somewhat possible for people to own firearms that comply with the extremely strict state laws. 

Sales Tax on Guns/Ammo in California

California’s tax rates vary a good bit based on locality, generally between 7.25% and 10.25%.

There is additional bad news on the tax front in the state: there’s an extra 10% state tax on all firearms and ammunition sales in the state. This makes it one of the most expensive states in which to buy a firearm.

More Resources:

California Gun Law FAQ:

No. All ammunition purchases in the state have to go through an FFL because the state has background checks and a registry for all firearms and ammo purchases.

While it is legal to concealed carry with a permit, getting that permit is more or less up to the whims of local law enforcement, who can legally deny the permit if they do not think you are of “good moral character,” which they get to define as well.

In their intended state, no. To own an AR in California the magazine has to be fixed into place, or less than 5 rounds. Additional modifications such as plastic fins, welded muzzle devices, or not having a 1911 rail also might help.

If you have a Certificate of Eligibility, pass an additional background check, want a handgun from an approved list, and are willing to wait ten days, then yes.

No. It is still legal to own firearms in California. With that said, CA has the most strict firearms laws in the country, and it is difficult to comply with the sometimes vague and (according to several federal judges) unconstitutional laws.