Capitol Alert

What California’s new gun laws mean for hunters, target shooters

Explaining California's new assault weapon ban

New California laws will broaden the definition of prohibited assault weapons, cracking down on a quick-reloading device referred to as the "bullet button."
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New California laws will broaden the definition of prohibited assault weapons, cracking down on a quick-reloading device referred to as the "bullet button."

Being a California gun owner just got more complicated.

Bolstering a body of firearms laws already considered among the nation’s strongest, Gov. Jerry Brown last week signed a half-dozen bills to regulate ammunition sales, ban large-capacity clips and quick-reloading devices and clamp down on lending weapons, among other things.

Some hunters and shooters have reacted with a mix of dismay and confusion, wondering what they will have to do to remain law-abiding citizens and asking if they will need to change their habits.

“I haven’t broken any laws. I’m a Boy Scout. For 20 years I’ve made every effort to stay completely legal because gun rights are so important to me,” said John Spier, a competitive shooter who lives in Visalia. “These laws are going to affect me and those like me a lot more than they’re going to affect criminals.”

Here are answers to some of the more common questions and concerns that arose in interviews with gun owners.

Q: Do I have to get a permit to buy ammunition?

A: No. But under Senate Bill 1235 as of July 2019 you will need to pass a background check, which involves the vendor running your information through a California Department of Justice system to see if you are prohibited from owning guns (for example, because of a violent felony). If not, you should be clear to buy.

Q: What if I go hunting across state lines and buy ammo there?

A: Let’s say you travel to Oregon for some duck hunting and buy boxes of ammunition while outside of California. You can bring at most 50 rounds back in to the state. Any more than that and you could be hit with a misdemeanor.

Q: Who’s going to enforce that?

A: The same law enforcement agencies like sheriffs, police officers and Department of Justice agents who already enforce gun laws. For example, the department already works to intercept people who cannot own guns in California but try to get them across the border from other states.

Hunters might already be familiar with Department of Agriculture border checkpoints, which exist to ensure people aren’t bringing banned fruit and vegetables, illegally poached game or out-of-state afflictions like chronic wasting disease into California. There is no plan to set up new checkpoints to check whether people are bringing ammunition, but people could face questions about ammo at the agricultural stops.

If you are purchasing ammunition in California, going hunting in another state and then returning with more than 50 rounds, keep a record of the sale to establish it’s on the level.

Q: Can I give or sell my friends and family excess ammunition?

A: You can sell up to 50 rounds a month directly to immediate relatives and give as much as you want to friends or family. You cannot sell to a friend unless the transaction goes through a licensed ammunition dealer or you both are licensed hunters out on a hunt and you don’t sell more than 50 rounds a month.

Q: I own a gun with a detachable magazine. Am I breaking the law?

A: Two bills, Senate Bill 880 and Assembly Bill 1135, sought to close what law enforcement groups and gun control advocates call the “bullet-button” loophole. California law already prohibited assault weapons, defined as those with magazines that can be detached without disassembling the gun or using a tool.

But some gun owners reacted to that by employing so-called “bullet-button” devices that can quickly release spent magazines without running afoul of the ban, seeing as they allow users to eject magazines using tools like another magazine.

The new laws would, as of the start of 2017, ban the sale of semi-automatic, centerfire rifles or semi-automatic pistols that do not have a fixed magazine and also have one from a list of specific design features.

Q: So if I have an old gun that fits that definition, do I have to get rid of it?

A: Not if you bought it between 2001 and 2016. But you will need to register it with the California Department of Justice by the start of 2018. You can find a form online at, and it should cost at most $20.

Both under the old and the new definition, to be banned for sale guns also need to have a characteristic from a list that includes things like a protruding pistol grip, a thumbhole stock, a folding stock, a flash suppressor or a grenade launcher. In other words, what are often referred to as “military-style” features.

So guns like hunting rifles with detachable magazines won’t necessarily be banned, as long as they don’t have one of those “military-style” design features the state uses to define assault weapons.

Q: My dad owns a semi-automatic with a detachable magazine that fits the new definition of an assault weapon. Will I be able to inherit it when he dies or buy it from him?

A: No. Unless he modifies the gun so it’s not longer classified as an assault weapon, that now counts as an illegal sale or transfer.

Q: My hunting company regularly lends customers guns. Is that now illegal?

A: No. Assembly Bill 1511 cracks down on loaning guns, with advocates arguing the practice serves to skirt background check requirements.

But an existing exemption for hunters remains in place, so hunting guides can still lend their customers firearms as part of their businesses if those customers have hunting licenses and only use the guns during the established hunting season.

Family members can lend one another guns provided it doesn’t happen that often: less than six times a year for handguns and, for other guns, if it’s “occasional and without regularity.”

Outside of that, you won’t be able to loan guns to others starting in January 2017.

Q: Some of the guns I use take magazines that carry more than 10 rounds. What do I do with them?

A: Senate Bill 1446 prohibits the possession of magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds as of July 2017. That expands on an existing state law barring the sale and import of such magazines.

So you might need to get rid of old high-volume magazines by destroying them, selling them to licensed gun dealers or handing them in to law enforcement. But, as with the bullet-button bills, there are some exceptions written in.

If you own a gun that only takes such large-capacity magazines, and bought it before the start of 2000, you can keep the magazines that go with it provided you only use them for that gun.

Q: I’m a competitive shooter and use guns with large-capacity magazines. Can I continue practicing my sport in California?

A: Some shooting competitions use guns that accept magazines larger than those California now prohibits. Participants have been able to get around that until now provided their magazines are old enough that they didn’t buy them before California outlawed sales of such magazines.

But now, if your gun can take a lower-capacity magazine, you have to use it while in California.

Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert