If you’re a resident of the Golden State and you want to own an AR-15, you’re in luck! AR-15s can be built California-compliant a couple of different ways. The rules for what your rifle can and cannot have are outlined pretty clearly. This is my interpretation; you should seek legal counsel from someone with more qualifications than this Idaho boy.
Let’s talk about Senate Bill 23 Assault Weapon Characteristics. If you own an assault rifle, it has to be registered as such with the state. These stipulations allow you to own guns that are not classified as assault rifles without registering them. This bill was made effective January 1, 2000, and you should read that link on the Attorney General’s website yourself. You might also like to see this summary of general California gun laws.
What makes an “Assault Rifle”?
This bill spells out the features that designate an assault weapon, including rifles, pistols, and shotguns. We’ll focus on rifles. If you have an AR pistol with a handguard in CA, it has to be registered as an assault weapon. We love handguards around here, but we’re not so interested in registering our AR pistols.
Let’s ask some questions and see what the bill has to say about it.
Can I own an Assault Rifle?
Yes. So-called “assault weapons” have to be registered with the state, but you can own them. Any other rifle is not required to be registered. The bolt action .30-06 you inherited is not required to be registered. But semi-autos must meet these guidelines or must be registered.
Can I have a semi-automatic rifle?
Yes. Semi-automatic rifles are allowed without registering. You don’t have to register rimfire rifles, like your Remington 10/22, at all. All the registering requirements only apply to centerfire rifles, such as the classic AR-15s chambers in .233 REM and 5.56 NATO.
Weigh in with a comment about what semi-autos you own that aren’t ARs!
Can I have detachable magazines?
Yes. Detachable magazines can be ok, but if they are combined with any of the following, they are considered to be assault rifles and must be registered:
- A pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon.
- A thumbhole stock.
- A folding or telescoping stock.
- A grenade launcher or flare launcher.
- A flash suppressor.
- A forward pistol grip.
Bonus: Does AR-15 stand for Assault Rifle-15?
Just for your general knowledge, ‘AR’ does not stand for Assault Rifle. The rifle was designed initially by Eugene Stoner for the Armalite company. AR stands for “Armalite Rifle.” I’m just lookin’ out for you here. Don’t talk about your Assault Rifle-15 with the guys at the range 😉
Are there AR-15s without detachable magazines?
Surprisingly, yes. Although detachable 20- and 30-round magazines are iconic with ARs in other states, California requires a ‘fixed’ magazine. Mods to make 10-round magazines ‘fixed’ are common. These require the upper and lower receivers to be separated before the magazine is released. Most require you to remove the rear takedown pin and tilt the upper receiver forward. It’s intended to be awkward and make reloading slower and more difficult. But of course, limitations stimulate creativity and there are now several good ways to make the receivers separate before the magazine can be released.
According to the rule, if the 10-round magazine is fixed to the gun until the receivers are opened, then it’s not an assault rifle. From the bill, it is an assault rifle if it is:
“A semiautomatic, centerfire rifle that has a fixed magazine with the capacity to accept more than 10 rounds.”
Can I have more than ten rounds in a magazine?
Not in your centerfire rifle. Your magazine must hold no more than 10 rounds. And that doesn’t mean that you only put 10 rounds in a 20-round mag. You must either have small 10-round mags, or you must permanently alter larger capacity mags to limit them to only ten rounds. You can find mods for mags pretty easily.
What are my options to use detachable magazines?
First of all, remember that even with ‘fixed’ magazines, they can still be detachable after the receivers are opened. Other solutions to alter the classic AR to make it compatible include several stock modifications that eliminate the ‘conspicuous pistol grip’. You could have a wooden stock shaped more like your classic .30-06. You could also have the ‘sharkfin’ style that creates a solid paddle between the buttstock and the grip. Lawmakers must have supposed that these styles would make it harder to assault with your rifle.
How short can my rifle be?
Unfortunately, not very short. If it’s a semi-auto center-fired rifle with detachable mags, it has to be at least 30″ long. And remember from above, it cannot have a collapsible stock. It has to be at least 30″ long all the time, from the back of the buttstock to the end of the barrel — or barrel device.
But, if the mags are fixed, the 30″ limit doesn’t apply, and you can use collapsible stocks.
Can I use a brake?
Yes! Brakes are allowed. Strangely, it’s just “flash-suppressors” that are disallowed. Not only does a brake look sweet on the end of your rifle, but it also significantly reduces recoil. That means you’ll shoot more accurately with your first shot and stay on target better for faster follow-up shots.
At least, until your 10-round magazine runs dry.
Can I have a grenade launcher?
The G.I. Joe cartoons should never have gotten your hopes up.
It’s not that bad!
You can still have semi-auto ARs in California. They just won’t be exactly like the one I use in Idaho — much to my L.A.-resident little brother’s chagrin. You can get modified takedown pins that make it easier to break open the receivers (like an over-under shotgun — classic!) and they have modified mag release buttons to go with them.
Rather than make a behemoth rifle with a funky stock, Unique ARs adheres to CA compliance using Juggernaught Tactical’s Hellfighter modification kit. Their rear takedown pin is a spring-loaded button that releases the upper receiver a small amount. Once you press the button, the upper dislodges a fraction of an inch, then you use your magazine release button to drop the mag and put a new one in. Note that the upper isn’t free to fall all the way open; it just cracks open as in this next photo. Then you lock the upper back in place and release the bolt. Now you’re ready to fire.
When people do the reload quickly, they slap the upper back into place and it looks a lot like the motion for releasing the bolt on an MP5. It’s a good way to comply with a poor rule.