State and federal policies regulate people's ability to purchase and possess guns
Understanding firearm-related policies can help clinicians have informed conversations with patients.
California has relatively restrictive firearms laws compared to other states, including background check requirements and prohibitions on ownership that go beyond those in federal policy. California also has some unique programs for enforcing prohibitions and removing guns from high-risk individuals. Clinicians should have a basic understanding of these laws in order to engage in more informed discussions with patients and be aware of what clinical actions may result in a firearm prohibition.
No state or federal policies prohibit clinicians from asking patients clinically-relevant questions about firearms.
The Federal Gun Control Act
The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States confers the right of individual Americans to own firearms. Relatively few statutory restrictions on individual ownership existed until the 1960s. The assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, and episodes of civil unrest in many cities caused legislators to rethink Americans’ ease of access to guns.
In 1968, the federal Gun Control Act created categories of persons who were prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms, including felons, fugitives from justice, “unlawful users of or those addicted to a controlled substance,” those who had been “committed to a mental institution” or “adjudicated as a mental defective,” non-citizens, respondents to domestic violence protective orders, and those who had been dishonorably discharged from the military. It also prohibited federal firearms licensees (FFLs), such as licensed manufacturers and dealers, from selling or delivering firearms or ammunition to such persons.1 Prohibitions for persons convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence crimes were enacted in 1996.2
California Firearm Law
California state law includes additional criteria prohibiting firearm ownership. In California,
- An admission to a psychiatric facility for dangerousness results in a five-year prohibition.3
- Two admissions to a psychiatric facility for dangerousness within a year result in an indefinite prohibition.4
- A conviction for a violent misdemeanor results in a 10-year prohibition.5
- An emergency or ex parte civil protective order is prohibiting while in effect, in addition to the order after a hearing that is prohibiting by federal law.6
- Being the subject of a Tarasoff or Duty to Protect report to law enforcement results in a five-year prohibition.7
California was also the first state to pass a gun violence restraining order (GVRO, also known as an ERPO or a “red flag law”) policy. This allows family, law enforcement, and others to petition for a person’s firearms to be temporarily removed if they pose an immediate threat, and to prohibit them from purchasing new ones.8 Like other restraining orders, GVROs are prohibiting only while in effect.
California firearm prohibitions apply to ammunition as well.9
Acquiring a Firearm in California
In California, the minimum age to purchase long guns (rifles and shotguns) or handguns is 21, with some exceptions for people over 18 in the military and law enforcement, or with an active hunting license. Buyers are limited to one handgun purchase per month; this limit will also apply to rifles and shotguns beginning in July 2021.10
Most buyers in California must obtain a Firearm Safety Certificate by passing a written test about safe firearm handling and storage and firearm laws, then present that certificate when they begin the transaction to purchase or acquire a firearm.11
The majority of firearms in California are purchased from federal firearms licensees (FFLs), which must also be state-certified.12 The law requires prospective purchasers to undergo background checks through an FFL. The FFL contacts the California Department of Justice, which queries an array of state and federal databases, including the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).13 The NICS is managed by the FBI and acts as a repository for information on prohibited persons provided by federal and state agencies, including criminal, mental health, and family court records. If the prospective recipient of the firearm is found to be a prohibited person, the sale or transfer cannot be completed.
In California, most direct transfers of firearms between private parties (i.e., not retail purchases) also require a background check and must go through an FFL.14 These transfers are recorded with the California Department of Justice. Most other states permit private party transfers without background checks.
A mandatory 10-day waiting period follows sales and transfers, including those among private parties, during which the background checks are completed. If the buyer is not prohibited, they can pick up the firearm from the FFL after the ten-day period has passed.15
Background Check Exceptions
In California, transfers between parents and children or grandparents and grandchildren are exempt from the background check requirement, provided that the receiving person is not prohibited and has completed the Firearm Safety Certificate requirement.16
California also allows voluntary, temporary transfer without a background check and Firearm Safety Certificate requirements if expressly to prevent self-harm with a firearm. The statute requires that the person who receives the firearm is 18 years of age or older, is not a prohibited person, does not use the firearm, and stores it unloaded and disabled or locked up using a safe storage device.17
Recovery of Illegally Owned Firearms
California is the only state with a system for recovering firearms from persons who legally acquire them but later become prohibited from ownership.18 In 2015, there were approximately 19,000 persons in California who continued to own nearly 50,000 firearms after becoming prohibited from firearm possession.19 California’s unique Armed Prohibited Persons System (APPS) checks the names of newly prohibited people against an archive of firearm purchase records. If there is a verified match, law enforcement agents can recover the now-illegally owned firearms.
Page last updated October 2020.
Click to view references
- Firearm ownership and acquisition in California: Findings from the 2018 California Safety and Well-being Survey. Injury Prevention.
- About NICS.
- Armed and prohibited: characteristics of unlawful owners of legally purchased firearms. Injury Prevention : Journal of the International Society for Child and Adolescent Injury Prevention
For more information, see these peer-reviewed articles.
Shultz, B. N., Lye, C. T., D’Onofrio, G., et al. (2020). Understanding the Role of Law in Reducing Firearm Injury through Clinical Interventions. The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics : a journal of the American Society of Law, Medicine & Ethics.
McCourt, A. D., & Vernick, J. S. (2018). Law, Ethics, and Conversations between Physicians and Patients about Firearms in the Home. AMA Journal of Ethics.
Additional Resources on Firearm Purchase and Possession Policies in California
California Gun Laws
This webpage outlines California's gun laws and suggests how California can further strengthen its gun regulations.
Firearms Prohibiting Categories
A list of state and federal laws that make it unlawful for certain persons to own and/or possess firearms.
Background Checks For Firearm Purchases: Problem Areas And Recommendations To Improve Effectiveness
A review of the problems associated with background checks on firearm purchasers, and suggested actions to improve its effectiveness.