Penal Code § 12556 PC states that “no person may openly display or expose any imitation firearm in a public place.” A first-offense violation is treated as an infraction punishable by a $100.00 fine. A second offense carries a $300.00 fine. A third or subsequent violation is punishable as a misdemeanor.
An “imitation firearm” includes objects such as:
- a BB gun,
- a toy gun, and
- a replica of a firearm.
Some examples of crimes under PC 12556 are:
- Tony points a toy rifle at his friend’s chest in a department store.
- Kelly takes an IF out of her purse while waiting in line for a movie.
- Roberto pulls a BB gun out at school (not a crime though under California’s Gun-Free School Zone Act, Penal Code 626.9).
Luckily, there are several legal defenses that a person can raise if accused under this code section. These include showing that a defendant:
- did not have an “imitation firearm,”
- was not in a “public place,” and
- qualified for an exemption from the law.
A person that violates Penal Code 12556 is charged with an infraction. A first offense is punishable by a $100 fine; and, a second offense is punishable by a $300 fine.
A third or subsequent violation of this section is punishable as a misdemeanor (as opposed to a California felony).
Our California criminal defense attorneys will discuss the following in this article:
- 1. Are imitation firearms illegal in California?
- 2. Are there legal defenses to PC 12556 violations?
- 3. Penalties, punishment, and sentencing
- 4. Related laws
1. Are imitation firearms illegal in California?
Penal Code 12556 is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to display an “imitation firearm” in public.1
An “imitation firearm” includes objects such as a:
- BB gun,
- toy gun, and
- replica of a firearm.2
An imitation firearm also includes any other device that would lead a reasonable person to believe that it is a firearm.3
According to PC 12556, a “public place” is an area open to the public and includes:
- front yards,
- parking lots,
- automobiles, and
- buildings open to the general public.4
2. Legal Defenses
A person can try to challenge a PC 12556 accusation by raising a legal defense. A legal defense may work to reduce or dismiss a charge.
Three common defenses to Penal Code 12556 charges include:
- no imitation firearm;
- no public place; and/or,
2.1. No imitation firearm
Please recall that PC 12556 only applies to “imitation firearms.” It is always a valid defense, therefore, for a defendant to show that while he may have displayed an object in public, it was not an IF (e.g., it was a wooden bat).
2.2. No public place
Also recall that a person is guilty under PC 12556 only if he displays an IF in a “public place.” This means that it is a defense for an accused to show that while he displayed a toy gun, he did not do so in public (e.g., he was in his home).
There are certain situations that are exempted from the general prohibition under Penal Code 12556. For example, the section states that it does not apply when the imitation firearm is used:
- in a theatrical production or movie,
- when a person is hunting,
- as a display on a wall plaque or in a presentation case, and
- in parades.5
If a defendant displays an IF, and the situation falls into one of these exemptions, he has a valid defense to any charge of displaying an IF in public.
3. Penalties, punishment, and sentencing
A person that violates Penal Code 12556 is charged with an infraction.6 A first offense is punishable by a $100 fine; and, a second offense is punishable by a $300 fine.7
A third or subsequent violation of this section is punishable as a misdemeanor.8
4. Related offenses
There are three laws related to displaying an imitation firearm in public. These are:
- brandishing a weapon – PC 417;
- possession of a switchblade – PC 17235 and 21510; and,
- California’s cane gun law – PC 24410
4.1. Brandishing a weapon – PC 417
In particular, PC 417 prohibits drawing, exhibiting, or using a firearm or deadly weapon.9
A violation of this code section is a California wobbler, meaning that it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
If charged as a misdemeanor, the crime is punishable by:
- imprisonment in a county jail for up to one year, and/or
- a maximum fine of $1,000.
If charged as a felony, the offense is punishable by imprisonment in the California state prison for:
- 16 months,
- two years, or
- three years.10
4.2. Possession of a switchblade – PC 17235 and 21510
Specifically, if a switchblade has a blade two inches or more in length, it is a crime to:
- possess the knife in the passenger’s or driver’s area of any motor vehicle in any public place or place open to the public,
- carry the switchblade upon your person, or
- sell, offer or expose for sale, or loan, transfer, or give the knife to anyone else.11
A violation of California’s switchblade laws is a misdemeanor offense, punishable by either:
- up to six months in county jail, and/or
- a fine of up to $1,000.
Please note that in lieu of jail time, a judge may award a guilty party with misdemeanor probation. This is sometimes referred to as “summary” or “informal” probation.
Misdemeanor probation contrasts with California “formal” (felony) probation.
4.3. California’s cane gun law – PC 24410
Under California Penal Code 16330 PC, a “cane gun” is a type of firearm that is:
- enclosed within an object resembling a walking cane; and,
- can be fired while inside the object.13
A violation of PC 24410 is a wobbler offense, meaning that it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
No matter how charged, the crime is punishable by:
- imprisonment in the county jail; and/or,
- a significant fine.14
For additional help…
If you or someone you know has been accused of a crime, per Penal Code 12556 PC, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation. We can be reached 24/7.
- California Penal Code 12556(a) PC. The language of the code section reads that: (a) No person may openly display or expose any imitation firearm, as defined in Section 12550, in a public place.(b) Violation of this section, except as provided in subdivision (c), is an infraction punishable by a fine of one hundred dollars ($100) for the first offense, and three hundred dollars ($300) for a second offense.(c) A third or subsequent violation of this section is punishable as a misdemeanor.(d) Subdivision (a) shall not apply to the following, when the imitation firearm is:(1) Packaged or concealed so that it is not subject to public viewing.(2) Displayed or exposed in the course of commerce, including commercial film or video productions, or for service, repair, or restoration of the imitation firearm.(3) Used in a theatrical production, a motion picture, video, television, or stage production.(4) Used in conjunction with a certified or regulated sporting event or competition.(5) Used in conjunction with lawful hunting, or lawful pest control activities.(6) Used or possessed at certified or regulated public or private shooting ranges.(7) Used at fairs, exhibitions, expositions, or other similar activities for which a permit has been obtained from a local or state government.(8) Used in military, civil defense, or civic activities, including flag ceremonies, color guards, parades, award presentations, historical reenactments, and memorials.(9) Used for public displays authorized by public or private schools or displays that are part of a museum collection.(10) Used in parades, ceremonies, or other similar activities for which a permit has been obtained from a local or state government.(11) Displayed on a wall plaque or in a presentation case.(12) Used in areas where the discharge of a firearm is lawful.(13) A device where the entire exterior surface of the device is white, bright red, bright orange, bright yellow, bright green, bright blue, bright pink, or bright purple, either singly or as the predominant color in combination with other colors in any pattern, or where the entire device is constructed of transparent or translucent materials which permits unmistakable observation of the device’s complete contents. Merely having an orange tip as provided in federal law and regulations does not satisfy this requirement. The entire surface must be colored or transparent or translucent.(e) For purposes of this section, the term “public place” means an area open to the public and includes streets, sidewalks, bridges, alleys, plazas, parks, driveways, front yards, parking lots, automobiles, whether moving or not, and buildings open to the general public, including those that serve food or drink, or provide entertainment, and the doorways and entrances to buildings or dwellings.(f) Nothing in this section shall be construed to preclude prosecution for a violation of Section 171b, 171.5, or 626.10.
- California Penal Code 16700(a) PC.
- See same.
- California Penal Code 12556(e) PC.
- California Penal Code 12556(d) PC.
- Penal Code 12556(b) PC.
- See same.
- California Penal Code 12556(c) PC.
- California Penal Code 417 PC.
- See same.
- California Penal Code 21510 PC.
- California Penal Code 24410 PC.
- California Penal Code 16330 PC.
- See same.