Can I own an assault weapon in California?

Jason A. Davis

Answered by:
Jason A. Davis

Located in Mission Viejo, CA
The Davis Law Firm

Jason A. Davis - Civil Rights - Super Lawyers

Answered by: Jason A. Davis

The Davis Law Firm
Mission Viejo, CA
Phone: 949-793-7012
Fax: 949-288-6894

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In recent years, California gun laws have undergone sweeping changes that can affect the firearms that you own. The most significant change is the State’s fourth interpretation of the term “assault weapon,” which now is defined in a manner that encompasses the most popular firearms sold in the United States. 

The “assault weapon” laws are focused less on the function of the weapon and more on how it looks. Often, compliance or noncompliance is a matter of changing a feature on the weapon instead of the function of the weapon itself.

Under this latest incarnation, if you possessed the "assault weapon" prior to January 1, 2017, and registered the firearm with the Department of Justice via their California Firearms Application Reporting System (CFARS) prior to July 1, 2018, you can keep it – for now.  This “assault weapons” registration is separate and apart from the general firearms registration that occurred at the time of purchase from a licensed California firearms dealer – which does not qualify as registration for the “assault weapon” laws.   

The law applies very technical definitions to what is or is not an “assault weapon,” and often law enforcement even has trouble interpreting the “assault weapon” laws.  If you failed to register your “assault weapon” with the California Department of Justice through CFARS before the specified deadline, however, and do not wish to possess an unregistered “assault weapon,” you must take steps to remove the offending assault weapon features.  

How do I ensure my firearm is compliant?

First, if you are not sure whether your firearm is properly registered as an “assault weapon,” then it probably is not. Registration required the owner of the firearm to pursue the intentional act of creating a CFARS account with the Department of Justice, as well as submitting pictures of the firearm, information relating to the firearm and owner, and the payment of fees.  But, you can verify the registration status of your firearms by completing and submitting an Automated Firearms System Request for Firearm Records form per the instructions on the form, which available on the Department of Justice’s website. 

For unregistered “assault weapons,” it is important to know that all “assault weapons” are “semiautomatic.”  California regulations clarify that removing firearm components that would prevent the firearm from operating in a “semiautomatic” function will render the firearm no longer “semiautomatic” for the “assault weapon” laws.  Thus, removal of the bolt, firing pin, gas tube, or some other crucial part of the firearm would render the firearm no longer an “assault weapon” and cease any ongoing and unlawful possession. 

If you wish to render the firearm both operable and no longer an “assault weapon,” there are many alternatives.  For rifles, you can configure the firearm in such a manner that it is at least 30 inches in length, has a fixed magazine such that it cannot be removed without disassembly of the firearm action, and the firearm’s magazine cannot accept more than ten rounds. 

Additionally, all rifles that are deemed “assault weapons” are centerfire, thus converting the firearm to a rimfire rifle would also render it no longer an “assault weapon.”

You can also configure the rifle as a “featureless” firearm that is at least 30 inches in length and lacks the other “assault weapon” characteristics.  This means removing any folding or telescoping stocks, grenade launchers, flare launchers, flash suppressors, thumbhole stocks, pistol grips that protrude conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon, or forward pistol grips. 

For pistols, you can configure the firearm in a manner that it has a fixed magazine such that it cannot be removed without disassembly of the firearm action and the magazine cannot accept more than ten rounds. 

You can also configure the pistol as a “featureless” firearm that lacks the other “assault weapon” characteristics.  This means removing any threaded barrels, second handgrips, barrel shrouds, or the capacity to accept a magazine at any location magazine outside of the pistol grip. 

For shotguns, you can configure the firearm in a manner that it has a fixed magazine such that it cannot be removed without disassembly of the firearm action, but does not have a revolving cylinder. Moreover, the configuration must not have both, but may have one, of the following: a) a folding or telescoping stock, and b) a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon, thumbhole stock, or vertical handgrip.

Each feature referenced above has a specific definition under California law. If you own a firearm, you should use a checklist and review the definitions of the features provided by the Department of Justice to process and examine the firearm and ensure that it is compliant.

Certain exceptions exist within the law for people who use assault weapons professionally or for business purposes, including those in law enforcement, the military, manufacturing, gunsmithing, and for use in film, television and theatrical productions.

How does an attorney help ensure compliance?

If you have questions about the status of your weapon, an attorney can walk you through the definitions and checklists to ensure compliance. This process can be especially useful for dealers, collectors and manufacturers who may have their business affected by the new law. Individuals who have questions about the weapons they possess or have been arrested for wrongful possession can take advantage of the services of a firearms lawyer as well.

Often issues of compliance are resolved by having an attorney write opinion letters applying the laws to the firearm’s compliance devices and/or configuration.  An attorney can also work with you to retrofit your manufacturing operations to ensure your new weapons are compliant.

You still have a right to possess weapons under the Second Amendment, but California has recently changed the law to regulate the features of the weapons you possess. These regulations could change again, and your understanding of these laws can help protect yourself, your business and your greater constitutional right to bear arms.

Disclaimer: The answer is intended to be for informational purposes only. It should not be relied on as legal advice, nor construed as a form of attorney-client relationship.


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