Purchasing a firearm in California can be complicated and time-consuming. This guide is here to help you through the process. While we strive to make this guide as complete as possible, there certainly may be some questions we fail to answer. If that is the case, please feel free to use our contact form to suggest something we've missed.
Are you qualified to purchase a gun?
- Starting in 2019, the state raised the age to purchase any firearm to 21 years of age. Prior to that, you had to be 21 only to purchase a handgun. Note that there are exceptions to this law. Law enforcement, members of the military and (this is the key exception for the general public) people with hunting licenses who are 18 years of age or older can purchase a long gun.
- You cannot be a prohibited person. You can find a complete list of prohibited categories here if you've previously had a run-in with the law and are unsure whether or not you're allowed to possess a gun. If you are still unsure if you're qualified to purchase a firearm, you can request the state Department of Justice run what is called a Personal Firearms Eligibility Check. The check requires a $20 fee plus whatever a notary public charges to witness the form. Note that this only performs a check of California state databases for disqualifying offenses. It does not check the federal NICS database (legally, that database can only be checked when you're actually purchasing a firearm).
- You need to have a government-issued ID that has your name, picture, date of birth and current home address. If your license does not have your current address, you'll be asked to provide an additional proof of your California residency. Potential proofs include: a recent utility bill (within the last three months), motor vehicle registration, a residential lease or property deed.
- You will have to fill out the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms form 4473. This form contains several questions to determine if you are allowed to purchase a gun. You can find the form here if you'd like to take a look at it. When you actually go into a gun store to purchase a firearm, the dealer will provide you with the form and can help you with filling it out.
- You need to have a Firearm Safety Certificate. You can find the study guide here. The 30-question multiple-choice and true/false test requires you to get 23 questions correct to receive your certificate. The test costs $25 and that fee allows you to take the test twice if necessary to pass it. The FSC is valid for five years.
The gun-buying process
Whether you buy a firearm in person or online, you'll eventually have to make your way to what's commonly referred to as an FFL, or a Federal Firearms Licensee. Contrary to what some anti-gun activists claim, you cannot buy a firearm online and have it mailed directly to your home or business.
Every gun shop is a licensed FFL. If you're buying your first firearm in California, we here at Restricted Arms encourage you to go to a local gun shop to handle the handgun, rifle or shotgun you're interested in purchasing on your own. Despite the best intentions of your friends, you really need to rely on how the gun feels in your hand and how the trigger feels when you pull it to decide which gun is best for you. (Coming soon: Our Marketplace will have a list of gun shops along with the services they provide so you know where you can go to get training, try out a gun before you buy it and much more.)
Especially when it comes to handguns in the state of California, it's important to realize that there are severe restrictions on what you can own. First, the gun's magazine can hold no more than 10 rounds. For many modern guns, a "standard" magazine can hold 15 or more rounds. Second, the pistol must be listed on California's "not-unsafe" handguns roster. The number of handguns on the roster decreases every year since Vice President and then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris ruled that microstamping was a viable technology and every new semi-automatic handgun must incorporate it. No new semi-automatic handgun has been added to the roster since then because no gun manufacturer has figured out how to make the microstamping technology described by California law work.
Once you've purchased a gun
Now it's time to wait. Ten days to be exact. Ten consecutive 24-hour periods, including weekends and holidays. If the gun dealer ran the background check at 3 p.m. and exactly ten days later you think: "I'll pick it up a few hours early on my lunch break." No, you won't. The dealer will not release the gun to you until 240 hours have passed. Also remember that you cannot leave the gun there forever. The background check is only good for 30 calendar days. So you will need to pickup your gun between 10 and 30 days after the background check has been run. Otherwise you'll need to pay for another background check ($25) and wait an additional 10 days.
In addition to signing a few final papers, if you purchased a handgun, you will be required to perform a safe-handling demonstration. The dealer will hand you the gun and one or two inert cartridges (typically called snap-caps) and ask you to load the magazine. Put the magazine in the gun and load the chamber (typically by racking the slide). Remove the magazine. Rack the slide again to eject the round that was in the chamber and you're done. If you do not know how to do this, the dealer will show you. (This video also gives you a good walkthrough of the process.)
While it's not legally required, we also encourage you to get some training, especially if you don't have a background in firearms. Simply reading the Firearm Safety booklet provided by the state alone will not make you a competent or safe gun owner.