Subject to certain narrow exceptions, California law generally requires all firearm sales or transfers to be completed through a licensed firearms dealer, pursuant to a background check and other requirements.1

When both parties are not licensed, the seller or transferor must provide the firearm to a licensed firearms dealer, who will deliver the firearm to the purchaser or transferee following a background check and expiration of the mandatory state waiting period, unless the transferee is prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms, or the dealer is otherwise notified by the California Department of Justice (“DOJ”) that the sale or transfer may not proceed.2 If the dealer cannot deliver the firearm to the purchaser or transferee, the dealer must determine whether the private seller or transferor is prohibited from possessing a firearm. If the seller or transferor does not fall into a prohibited class, the dealer must immediately return the firearm to that party. In the event the seller or transferor does fall into a prohibited class, the dealer cannot return the firearm to that party, and must deliver the firearm to the sheriff of the county or to the chief of police of any city in the county in which the dealer operates.3

The following gun sales and transfers are exempt from the gun dealer participation requirement:4

  • Infrequent transfers between immediate family members;5
  • Certain government-sponsored transfers, including gun buybacks;6
  • Certain transfers to nonprofit historical societies, museums, or institutional collections;7
  • Transfers to licensed firearms manufacturers and importers;8
  • Effective January 1, 2020, the temporary loan of a firearm for up to 120 days for any lawful purpose if the firearm is loaned to a lawful recipient aged 18 or over, the recipient safely stores the firearm on their private property as specified and does not use the firearm in any manner, and both parties sign and submit a relevant form to the California Department of Justice;9
  • Effective January 1, 2020, the temporary transfer of a firearm for suicide prevention purposes, as long as reasonably necessary to prevent suicide risk, if the firearm is transferred to a person aged 18 or over for safekeeping and the recipient safely stores the firearm as specified, and does not use the firearm in any manner;10
  • Certain other loans involving firearms;11
  • Donations made to non-profit auctions;12
  • Transfers by operation of law;13
  • Certain transfers of curios or relics to licensed firearms collectors.14

Private sales and transfers of firearms are not subject to the state’s restriction on purchasing more than one firearm per month,15 or the state’s design safety standards for handguns.16

All licensed firearms dealers must process private party transfers of long guns upon request. Licensed dealers who sell, transfer, or stock handguns must also process private party handgun transactions upon request. A licensed dealer that does not deal is handguns is not required to process private party transfers of handguns.17

Any person, corporation, or dealer is prohibited from transferring a firearm to a person the seller “knows or has cause to believe” is not the actual purchaser or transferee of a firearm (such a person is known as a “straw purchaser” – someone not in a prohibited category who buys firearms on behalf of a convicted felon, juvenile or other prohibited purchaser), if the person, corporation, or dealer knows that the firearm is to be subsequently transferred in violation of California law.18 California law also prohibits any person from supplying a firearm to any person that state law prohibits from possessing firearms for mental health reasons.19 Private sellers of firearms must also comply with California’s age restrictions for the purchase or sale of a firearm.

For laws governing licensed dealers, see our Dealer Regulations in California section.

See our Universal Background Checks policy summary for a comprehensive discussion of this issue.

Notes
  1. Cal. Penal Code § 27545. Cal. Code Regs. tit. 11, § 4032. ⤴︎
  2. Cal. Penal Code § 28050(a)-(c). ⤴︎
  3. Cal. Penal Code § 28050(d). ⤴︎
  4. Note, however, that transferees receiving a firearm through one of these exceptions may be required to report to DOJ the receipt of the firearm within 30 days, and obtain a firearm safety certificate. See the Licensing of Gun Purchasers or Owners in California section. ⤴︎
  5. Cal. Penal Code § 27875. See also, Cal. Penal Code § 16730, which defines “infrequent” to mean that a person may conduct no more than six firearm “transactions” per calendar year and may transfer no more than 50 total firearms per calendar year without becoming a licensed dealer or conducting the transfers through a licensed dealer. ⤴︎
  6. Cal. Penal Code § 27850. ⤴︎
  7. Cal. Penal Code §§ 27855, 27860. ⤴︎
  8. Cal. Penal Code § 27865. ⤴︎
  9. Cal. Penal Code § 27883. ⤴︎
  10. Cal. Penal Code § 27882. This exemption applies if the transferor voluntarily transfers the firearm for safekeeping to prevent it from being used in a suicide attempt by the transferor or someone in the transferor’s household. The person receiving the firearm may not use the firearm for any purpose and must also keep the firearm unloaded and secured in their residence, except when transporting the firearm to or from the transferor, in one of the following ways: (A) Secured in a locked container; (B) Disabled by a firearm safety device; (C) Secured within a locked gun safe; or (D) Locked with a locking device as described in Penal Code Section 16860 that has rendered the firearm inoperable. ⤴︎
  11. Cal. Penal Code §§ 27880, 27885, 27910. ⤴︎
  12. Cal. Penal Code §§ 27900, 27905. ⤴︎
  13. Cal. Penal Code §§ 27920, 27925. ⤴︎
  14. Cal. Penal Code § 27966. All exceptions are listed at Cal. Penal Code §§ 27850-27966. ⤴︎
  15. Cal. Penal Code § 27535(b)(8). ⤴︎
  16. Cal. Penal Code §§ 27545 and 32110(a). ⤴︎
  17. Cal. Penal Code § 28065. ⤴︎
  18. Cal. Penal Code § 27515. ⤴︎
  19. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 8101 (referencing §§ 8100 and 8103). ⤴︎