Call Today! Free Immediate Response 877-781-1570


What is the Definition of a “Firearm” in California?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Apr 05, 2023

The State of California has strict and detailed laws on who may and may not possess a firearm, how firearms may be purchased, carried, etc.

California Penal Code 16520 PC outlines a specific list of what devices the state considers "firearms" and is subject to these laws and regulations.

What is the Definition of a “Firearm” in California?
California Penal Code 16520 PC is the statute providing the legal definition of a "firearm."

PC 16520 PC says that a firearm is a device designed to be used as a weapon where a projectile is expelled through a barrel by the force of an explosion or other form of combustion.

Notably, this also includes a rocket, rocket-propelled projectile launcher, or similar device containing explosive or incendiary material, whether or not it's designed for emergency or distress signaling purposes.

Under California law, you are not allowed to own or possess a firearm if you are a convicted felon, a narcotics addict, have two or more convictions of Penal Code 417 PC brandishing a weapon, or have a prior conviction for certain misdemeanor offenses, such as domestic violence.

Further, to legally sell or transfer a gun, you must have a valid permit, or you could face charges Penal Code 26500 PC unlicensed sale of firearms, a misdemeanor offense.

Other related crimes include Penal Code 25850 PC carrying a loaded firearm and Penal Code 26350 openly carrying an unloaded firearm. Let's review this state law in more detail below.

What Qualifies as a Firearm?

Under PC 16520, a firearm is “designed to be used as a weapon, from which a projectile is expelled through a barrel by the force of an explosion or other form of combustion."

What Qualifies as a Firearm?
Revolvers and shotguns qualify as a firearm.

Penal Code 16520(b) PC says, “A firearm includes the frame or receiver of the weapon, including both a completed frame or receiver or a firearm precursor part.”

For purposes of this discussion, we can identify two categories of firearms: guns and rockets.


Common examples of gun firearms include:

  • Handguns;
  • Pistols;
  • Revolvers;
  • Rifles, both long and short barreled;
  • Shotguns;
  • Assault weapons;
  • Machine guns.

As noted, under California law, the frame or receiver of any weapons mentioned above also classifies as a "firearm."

Rockets and Rocket Launchers

PC 16520 also categorizes the following items as firearms:

  • Rockets;
  • Rocket-propelled projectile launchers;
  • Any "similar device containing an explosive or incendiary material, whether or not the device is designed for emergency or distress signaling purposes."

What Are the Exceptions?

PC 16520 lists two specific exceptions to what it categorizes as "firearms" and is therefore not subject to the same regulations as the other items above. These include:

  • Unloaded antique weapons; and
  • "Destructive devices" (e.g., bombs, grenades, and other explosive devices) when they are possessed by authorized law enforcement and military members).

What Firearms Are Considered Illegal in California?

California Penal Code 16590 PC details firearms and other weapons prohibited in the state. Examples include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Cane guns;
  • Zip guns;
  • Wallet guns;
  • Unconventional pistols;
  • Short-barreled rifles and shotguns;
  • Firearms not immediately recognizable as firearms;
  • Undetectable firearms;
  • Weapons designed and intended to fire multiple projectiles with one pull of the trigger, commonly known as "multi-burst trigger activators."
  • Weapons modified from their original design to be able to accept a multi-burst trigger activator.

Who May Legally Own a Firearm in California?

Generally speaking, only persons who are not legally prohibited from doing so may own a firearm in California. Specifically, you may only own a firearm if you meet the following criteria:

  • You are at least 18 years old;
  • You have a valid firearm safety certificate (FSC);
  • You have no felony convictions;
  • You have no domestic violence convictions, misdemeanor or felony;
  • You have no restraining orders against you;
  • You have less than two convictions under PC 417 for brandishing a firearm;
  • You do not have a disqualifying mental illness, such as that you are considered mentally competent; and
  • You are not addicted to narcotics.

What Are the Laws on Assault Weapons?

California Penal Code 30600 PC defines assault weapons and .50 BMG, which is a Browning Machine Gun.

What Are the Laws on Assault Weapons in California?
Assault weapons are prohibited in California

Under this law, it's typically a crime to do any of the following acts regarding assault weapons:

  • Possess;
  • Sell;
  • Give away or lend;
  • Manufacture.

Penal Code 30510 PC lists several types of rifles, pistols, and shotguns that are classified as assault weapons, such as the following:

  • All AK series rifles;
  • UZI and Galil;
  • Beretta AR-70;
  • CETME Sporter;
  • Colt AR-15 series;
  • Daewoo K-1, K-2, Max 1, Max 2, AR 100, and AR 110C;
  • Fabrique Nationale FAL, LAR, FNC, 308 Match;
  • MAS 223;
  • HK-91, HK-93, HK-94, and HK-PSG-1.

What Are the Legal Requirements for Firearm Ownership in California?

To lawfully purchase a firearm in California, an individual must meet specific criteria, which include the following:

  1. Age requirement: The person must be at least 18.
  2. Background check: The person must undergo and pass a Personal Firearms Eligibility Check (PFEC) conducted by the California Department of Justice (DOJ).
  3. Firearm Safety Certificate (FSC): The person must obtain an FSC by passing a written test on firearm safety.
  4. Waiting period: The person must observe a 10-day waiting period before receiving the firearm.
  5. Safe storage: The person must store the firearm securely, adhering to California's safe storage laws.

What Is the Personal Firearms Eligibility Check?

The Personal Firearms Eligibility Check (PFEC) is a background check conducted by the California Department of Justice (DOJ). It ensures that those seeking to purchase firearms in California meet all legal requirements.

The PFEC requires individuals to submit fingerprints and other identifying information, which will then be checked against records to determine if they have any of the disqualifying factors mentioned above, such as being declared mentally incompetent or addicted to narcotics, are under restraining orders, have disqualifying criminal convictions, etc. The PFEC will return one of four results:

  1. You are eligible to purchase and possess legal firearms.
  2. You are ineligible to purchase firearms but are allowed to possess them.
  3. You may not purchase or possess firearms.
  4. The state doesn't have enough information on you to qualify you for firearm ownership.

Note that only the first option of a PFEC check will enable you to purchase a firearm.

Contact our California criminal defense lawyers to review the details and legal options if you were charged with a crime involving firearms as defined under Penal Code 16520.  Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, CA.

About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

We speak English, Russian, Armenian, and Spanish.

If you have one phone call from jail, call us! If you are facing criminal charges, DON'T talk to the police first. TALK TO US!

Anytime 24/7