The California Gun Attorney

Gun Contraband

Firearms Contraband & Consequences


Published by the Law Offices of Bruce Colodny
Revised & Copyright © 2017

Federal and California laws provide harsh penalties for mere possession of some firearms, accessories and ammunition. Frequently encountered varieties of firearms contraband are mentioned in this article.

Further limits on manufacture, importation, possession and usage of politically incorrect firearms and ammunition should be expected.

CAUTION! The following examples are not comprehensive, and are not a substitute for legal advice. If you suspect, learn, or are told that you possess firearms, parts, accessories or ammunition that may be illegal, immediately consult a California attorney with significant experience in firearm laws and regulations. Although no attorney can advise you to destroy evidence of a crime, you have no duty to incriminate yourself. A qualified attorney may be able to help you legally dispose of contraband, particularly if it was innocently acquired.

1. Pistols and Revolvers That Chamber Shotgun Shells.

California regards most modern handguns that chamber shotgun ammunition to be sawed off shotguns. The Thompson/Center single shot pistol with a .45/.410 barrel, the Smith & Wesson and Taurus revolvers, and single-shot or multi-barrel pistols with rifled barrels that chamber .410 cartridges are prohibited, even though there were no Federal objections to sale of these arms. Mere possession may be punished by up to three years in state prison.


2. Disguised Firearms And Containers.

California prohibits devices that are not easily recognizable as firearms, and also items intended to conceal a firearm, and which allow the gun to be fired. Prohibited devices include pen guns, knife pistols, pager guns, cell phone guns, belt buckle guns, and wallet guns. Mere possession may be punished as a felony with up to three years in state prison and for some items, Federal felony penalties may also apply.


3. Any Firearms Possessed If you are a Prohibited (from firearms) Person.

If a court orders you to surrender relinquish firearms, you should immediately contact an attorney familiar with firearms law. You do not forfeit your economic interest in firearms legally acquired but you may not have access to the firearms. Community property interest in firearms is not extinguished if one spouse becomes prohibited from gun ownership.

NOTE: When you become a prohibited person, possession of ammunition and ammunition components is also prohibited and California also bars possession of ammunition feeding devices such as clips, magazines and speed loaders.


4. Magazines Holding More Than Ten Cartridges.

Subject to very limited exceptions, effective July 1, 2017, large capacity magazines may no longer be lawfully possessed within California. Assembly, Importation, manufacture, receiving or transfer or a large capacity magazine within California may be prosecuted as a felony.


5. Assault Weapons Not Registered In California.

A person who just simply possesses an unregistered Assault Weapon may be charged with either a misdemeanor or a felony and upon conviction, may be sentenced to serve up to three years in prison.

Conviction for converting, manufacturing, importing, selling, transferring or transporting unregistered Assault Weapons, may bring up to eight years in prison.

The California Penal Code implies, and the California Department of Justice has suggested that, arranged in advance, surrender of unregistered Assault Weapons to police or sheriffs results in immunity from prosecution.


6. .50 BMG Rifles Not Registered In California.

Effective January 1, 2005, rifles chambered to fire the .50 BMG cartridge became subject to the California restrictions previously imposed on Assault Weapons and had to be registered on or before April 30, 2006. Failure to comply can result in the same criminal penalties imposed for Assault Weapon violations.


7. Folding or Pistol Grip Stocks For Semi-Automatic Rifles and Shotguns.

Attachment of such a stock to a firearm may result in being charged with manufacture of an Assault Weapon, a California felony. Ownership of a folding stock or pistol grip stock and the semi-automatic firearm to which it may be attached, may also result in Assault Weapon prosecution.


8. Machine Guns, Short Barreled Rifles, Short Barreled Shotguns Or Smooth Bore Pistols Under Federal Law.

Manufacture, sale and possession of these "gangster weapons" is regulated and taxed under the National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934.

NFA registration is also required for unserviceable machine guns, cannons and some other war souvenirs. Mere possession of an unregistered NFA weapon may result in a prison sentence of up to ten years. No amnesty has been offered to permit voluntary registration of NFA weapons since 1968.

Lawful dispositions of unregistered NFA weapons are abandonment or forfeiture to a government agency but immunity from prosecution is not guaranteed. NFA restrictions do not apply to shotguns with barrels 18" or longer and an overall length of 26" or more, nor do NFA rules apply to rifles with barrels 16" or longer and an overall length of 26" or more.


9. Machine Guns, Short Barreled Rifles, Short Barreled Shotguns Or Smooth Bore Pistol Under California Law.

Special permits may be obtained from the Department of Justice to possess machine guns and short-barreled rifles or shotguns, but permits are normally issued only for law enforcement or for motion picture or television production purposes.

Unlawful possession of a short-barreled rifle, shotgun, a smooth bore pistol or machine gun may be punished as a misdemeanor, or as a felony with a sentence of three years in state prison. A person convicted of misdemeanor machine gun possession may not own any firearm in California for ten years.

California does not (but Federal law does) regulate possession of machine guns or cannons that are permanently unserviceable; however, there have been successful prosecutions for "constructive possession" where one person was alleged to have all the parts necessary to assemble a machine gun.

California allows ownership of specific short-barreled rifles, short barreled shotguns and smoothbore pistols, which have been classified as Curios and Relics by the ATF and are owned in accord with Federal law.


10. Firearms and Ammunition Over .50 Caliber.

Except for shotguns and "elephant guns", most firearms with a bore diameter greater than .50" are Destructive Devices under Federal law, subject to the same NFA registration and transfer restrictions as machine guns. California law provides felony penalties for possession of firearms and ammunition greater than .60 caliber, except for shotguns and shotshells and a few big-bore sporting rifles and cartridges.


11. Tracer, Incendiary and Exploding Ammunition.

Cartridges with tracer, incendiary, or exploding projectiles are Destructive Devices in California. Felony penalties apply to simple possession. The prohibition does not apply to tracer shotgun shells.


12. Handgun Ammunition Designed To Penetrate Metal Or Armor.

Knowing possession may be prosecuted as a felony in California.


13. Over 20 Pounds of Smokeless Gunpowder or More Than One Pound of Black Powder.

Even if intended for use in sporting firearms, California provides felony penalties for possessing more than the stated amounts of gunpowder without special permits.


14. Grenade or Rocket Launchers.

Tube type grenade launchers that can fire antipersonnel cartridges, functioning rocket launchers and mortars are Destructive Devices under Federal law, subject to NFA restrictions and felony penalties.

California provides felony penalties for possession of any rocket launcher or grenade launcher, whether tube type, cup type or spigot type. Possession of pyrotechnic emergency signaling devices not marked with California Fire Marshal’s approval seal may result in criminal prosecution.


15. Machine Gun Parts and Conversion Kits.

Federal and state machine gun penalties apply to possession of sufficient parts to assemble a machine gun or to parts designed and intended to convert a semi-automatic firearm to fire more than one shot with a single pull of the trigger. You may be prosecuted for possession of conversion parts even if you do not own the firearm for which they were designed.


16. Multiburst Trigger Activators.

Devices that increase the rate of fire of semi-automatic firearms by mechanically manipulating the trigger are prohibited in California. Possession may be punished as a felony with up to three years imprisonment.


17. Short Rifle or Shotgun Barrels.

Under Federal law, possession may result in felony prosecution if the person also possesses a firearm to which the barrel may be applied. Under California law, mere possession of a short rifle or shotgun barrel, including a Thompson/Center combination .45/.410 barrel, may result in a felony conviction with up to a three-year sentence.


18. Shoulder Stocks for Handguns.

Under Federal law Possession may result in felony prosecution if the person also has a firearm to which the stock may be applied.

Under California law possession of only the shoulder stock may result in a felony sentence of up to three years. Certain stocked handguns and handgun stocks formally classified by the ATF as Curios and Relics are exempt.


19. Firearm Silencers.

Any device that measurably diminishes noise when a firearm is discharged may be considered a firearm silencer. Under Federal law, silencers and even a single silencer part are NFA weapons and felony penalties apply to unlicensed manufacture, transfer or possession. California allows manufacture, sale and possession of firearm silencers for law enforcement and military use only.


20. Sniper Scopes.

Possession of a night vision telescope adapted to a firearm that operates through projection of infrared light is a misdemeanor in California.


21. Imitation or Replica Firearms.

Transactions in realistic replicas of modern firearms in California may be subject to a fine of up to $10,000. Exceptions are provided for theatrical, educational, military and certain other uses.

This article was drafted by Attorney Eric H. Archer, for the Law Offices of Bruce Colodny.