California Penal Code § 26500 PC makes it a misdemeanor to sell, lease or transfer firearms without a valid license or permit. A conviction carries a sentence of up to six months in county jail and a maximum $1,000 fine for every firearm that is illegally transmitted.
The language of the statute reads that:
26500. (a) No person shall sell, lease, or transfer firearms unless the person has been issued a license pursuant to Article 1 (commencing with Section 26700) and Article 2 (commencing with Section 26800) of Chapter 2.
(b) Any person violating this article is guilty of a misdemeanor.
In this article, our California criminal defense attorneys discuss the following:
- 1. Is it illegal to sell unlicensed firearms in California?
- 2. How do I get a license to sell firearms?
- 3. What are the penalties for violating Penal Code 26500 PC?
- 4. How do I fight the charges?
1. Is it illegal to sell unlicensed firearms in California?
California Penal Code 26500(a) PC states that no person shall
- lease, or
- transfer firearms without a license to do so.
(There are exceptions for transferring firearms between family members). Even then, the transfer must be for the type of firearm authorized under the permit. 1 2 3
1.1. Legal definition of “firearm”
Under California law, a gun or firearm is:
- any device,
- designed to be used as a weapon,
- from which is expelled through a barrel,
- a projectile,
- by the force of any explosion or other forms of combustion.”4
Examples of “firearm” – often generically referred to as “gun” – include (but are not limited to):
- rifles (including short-barreled rifles),
- shotguns (including short-barreled shotguns), AND
- the frame or receiver of any of the above.5
Also included in the definition of “firearms” are:
- rocket-propelled projectile launchers, and
- similar devices containing an explosive or incendiary material.6
Such devices are illegal even if they are designed for emergency or distress signaling purposes.7
However, the following do not count as firearms for purposes of Penal Code 26500:
- pellet guns,
- BB guns, AND
- unloaded “antique” firearms.8
1.2. Who may legally own or possess a gun in California?
The following people are generally prohibited from acquiring or possessing a gun in California:
- felons (that is, anyone convicted of any felony offense in any jurisdiction),9
- persons who are addicted to narcotics,10
- persons with two (2) or more convictions under Penal Code 417, California’s law against brandishing a weapon,11
- persons convicted of certain misdemeanor offenses,12
- persons who suffer from mental illness,13 and
- minors (that is, anyone under 18); people under 21 may not purchase firearms.14
If you are prohibited from owning a gun, you are also prohibited from owning ammunition.15
Anyone else may possess a firearm or ammunition16 (other than armor-piercing ammunition17). The only requirement is that in order to purchase a handgun, you must possess a valid handgun safety certificate.18
1.3. People and transactions exempt
Certain people, transactions, and firearms are exempt from prosecution under PC 26500. These include (but are not limited to):
- People acting under the operation of law or court order;19
- Law enforcement officers;20
- People disposing of guns they’ve inherited;21
- The infrequent transfer of personal firearms, including at gun shows;22
- Transfers to and from federally authorized firearms importers, dealers and manufacturers;23
- The temporary loan of firearms at target facilities;24
- Use of unloaded firearms used as props in movies, television shows and other entertainment productions;25
- Delivery of unloaded curios or relics to licensed collectors of antique firearms;26 and
- Loan of a firearm to a gunsmith for repair.27
Note, however, that even these exceptions have exceptions. This is why it’s critical that anyone charged with a firearm or weapon offense contact a criminal defense attorney.
A good California criminal defense attorney will be familiar with California gun laws and all of their nuances.
1.4. The requirement that ALL gun sales be completed through a licensed dealer
Some states allow individuals to sell firearms
- out of their homes,
- in newspaper ads,
- online, and even
- at garage sales.
These unlicensed individuals are exempt from conducting background checks on their buyers. Thus they can sell guns to people otherwise banned from possessing or owning firearms.
California, however, requires that all transactions involving firearms (even those between private parties) must be completed through a licensed dealer.
Even the exceptions listed above, such as lawful “infrequent” transactions between unlicensed individuals, must ultimately be brokered through licensed dealers.28
Unlicensed individuals can arrange for the sale, lease, or transfer of firearms. But a licensed dealer must be involved to complete the transaction.
2. How do I get a license to sell firearms?
In order to obtain a California license to sell firearms (and therefore avoid prosecution under Penal Code 26500) you must obtain and maintain all of the following:
- a valid federal firearms license;
- any regulatory or business license or licenses required by your local government;
- a valid seller’s permit issued by the State Board of Equalization;
- a certificate of eligibility issued by the Department of Justice “DOJ” (NOTE: you are ineligible to receive a license if you are banned from owning, possessing, purchasing, or receiving firearms under Penal Code 29800 PC, California’s felon with a firearm law);
- a local one-year license issued by the authorized licensing authority in one of the following forms:
- a. in the form prescribed by the California Attorney General,
- b. in a regulatory or business license that clearly states “Valid for retail sales of firearms” and is endorsed by the appropriate licensing agency, or
- c. in a letter by the appropriate licensing agency that states that the jurisdiction does not require a license to sell firearms and/or does not restrict or regulate firearms sales;29
- a listing on the DOJ’s centralized list of firearms dealers.30
A license to sell firearms doesn’t give you the right to sell all firearms. It means that you are licensed to sell the legal firearms specified on the permit.
Most firearm licenses are for “generic” firearms. There are separate licensing requirements for dangerous weapons31 such as:
- short-barreled rifles and short-barreled shotguns,32
- large capacity machine guns — Penal Code section 32315 PC,33
- machine guns – Penal Code 32700 PC,34
- destructive devices such as hand grenades – Penal Code 18900, AND35
- assault weapons and rifles – Penal Code 31005 PC.36
And even if you have a license, you violate the law if you sell illegal firearms. Illegal firearms include (but are not limited to):
- guns classified under California’s assault weapons laws, including .50 BMG rifles (unless you have a permit for such weapons specifically37), and
- “generally prohibited weapons.”38
On June 4, 2021, a federal judge overturned California’s ban on assault weapons on the grounds that it violates the constitutional right to bear arms under the Second Amendment. But assault weapons remain illegal in California while the state appeals the ruling.
“Generally prohibited weapons” include such items as
- hidden knives,
- nunchakus, and
- metal knuckles.
Also included are unconventional guns and firearm accessories, including short-barreled shotguns and rifles.39
If you violate one of the above laws, prosecutors could prosecute you and revoke your firearms license.
Similarly, if you fail to maintain any licensing requirements, the state will revoke your California license to sell firearms. And if you sell, lease, or transfer firearms without a license, you face prosecution under Penal Code 26500.
Another way that you can forfeit your license is by failing to conduct a legitimate background check before selling firearms to an individual. If you don’t conduct a check — or you sell, lease, or transfer a firearm to someone who fails that check — the state could revoke your California license to sell firearms.
And if you continue to engage in transactions that involve selling, leasing, or transferring firearms after your license has been revoked, you subject yourself to prosecution.
3. What are the penalties for violating Penal Code 26500 PC?
The unlicensed sale of a firearm in California is a misdemeanor.40
If convicted, you face:
- Up to six (6) months in county jail, and/or
- A fine of up to $1,000.41
Such punishment is for each firearm you sell without a valid permit.42
4. How do I fight the charges?
Fortunately, there are a number of legal defenses to charges under California Penal Code 26500.
Often the police aren’t as knowledgeable as they believe they are. You may fall under one of the exceptions to this law — an exception the cops simply didn’t recognize.
Or perhaps you were entrapped into selling a gun to an undercover cop. If you are an unlicensed dealer and only sold the weapon to the undercover decoy because he/she threatened you or coerced you into doing so, entrapment serves as a valid legal defense.43
Other types of police misconduct could also absolve you of criminal culpability under PC 26500.44
Examples: Examples of police misconduct include (but are not limited to):
- the police coerced your confession;
- an officer lied in his report;
- a cop falsely testified about the facts of your case; or
- your civil rights were violated in any other way.
California firearms offenses are no different than any other crime. As Oakland criminal defense attorney Jim Hammer explains:45
“If your attorney has mastered the applicable laws and conducted a thorough investigation of the facts, he or she will know the most effective California legal defenses to present on your behalf.”
Call us for help…
If you or a loved one is charged with Penal Code Section 26500 PC unlicensed sale of firearms and you are looking to hire an attorney for representation, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group. We can provide a free consultation in the office or by phone. We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Glendale, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California.
Additionally, our Las Vegas Nevada criminal defense attorneys represent clients accused of violating Nevada’s laws against the illegal sale of firearms. For more information, we invite you to contact our local attorneys at one of our Nevada law offices, located in Reno and Las Vegas.46
Department of Justice Bureau of Firearms. Provided by the California Attorney General, this website contains information on the manufacture, sales, ownership, safety training, and transfer of firearms.
- California Penal Code 26500. See also Fiscal v. City and County of San Francisco (Cal. App. 1st Dist., 2008), 158 Cal. App. 4th 895. See, for example, Altman v. Cty. of Santa Clara (United States District Court for the Northern District of California, 2020) 464 F. Supp. 3d 1106. Note that with the passage of SB-915 (2022), the sale of firearms and ammunition are banned on all state-owned properties as well as county fairgrounds.
- California Penal Code 17800 PC.
- See, for example, California Penal Code 26588 PC.
- California Penal Code 16520(a).
- California Penal Code 16520 PC.…(b)…”firearm” includes the frame or receiver of the weapon…
- California Penal Code 16520(c)
- See same.
- California Penal Code 16520(d)
- California Penal Code 29800(a)(1)
- See same.
- California Penal Code 29800 (a)(2)
- California Penal Code 29805
- California Welfare and Institutions Code 8100.
- California Penal Code 29610 PC
- California Penal Code 25605.
- California Penal Code 30315 PC.
- California Penal Code 31615
- California Penal Code 26510 PC.
- California Penal Code 26515 PC.
- California Penal Code 26520 PC.
- See California Penal Code sections 26530, 26535, 26550, 26555, 26560, 26565, 26570, and 26575 PC.
- California Penal Code 26545 PC.
- California Penal Code 26580 PC.
- California Penal Code 26585 PC.
- California Penal Code 26587 PC.
- California Department of Justice, Attorney General, Frequently Asked Questions about California Firearms
- California Penal Code 26705 PC.
- California Penal Code 26700 PC.
- See State of California DANGEROUS WEAPONS LICENSE/PERMIT(S) APPLICATION.
- California Penal Code 33300 PC.
- California Penal Code 32315 PC.
- California Penal Code 32700 PC.
- California Penal Code 18900 PC.
- California Penal Code 31005 PC.
- California Penal Code 30600 PC.
- Included in the definition of “generally prohibited weapons” under California Penal Code 16590 PC are various types of firearms and firearm accessories such as:
- camouflaging firearm containers,
- cane gun,
- firearms that are not immediately recognizable as firearms,
- large-capacity magazines,
- multiburst trigger activators,
- short-barreled rifles and short-barreled shotguns,
- unconventional pistols,
- undetectable firearms,
- wallet guns, and
- zip guns.
- See California Penal Code 16590 PC.
- California Penal Code 26500(b) — Any person violating this article is guilty of a misdemeanor.
- California Penal Code 19 PC — Misdemeanor punishment. Except in cases where a different punishment is prescribed by any law of this state, every offense declared to be a misdemeanor is punishable by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding six months, or by fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both
- California Penal Code 17800 PC — For purposes of the provisions listed in Section 16590, a violation as to each firearm, weapon, or device enumerated in any of those provisions shall constitute a distinct and separate offense.
- Under California law, entrapment refers to a situation where a “normally law-abiding person” is induced to commit a crime that he/she otherwise would not have committed.
- “Police misconduct” is a broad term that covers a variety of acts. The bottom line is that anytime an officer violates any of your United States constitutional or civil rights, that misconduct serves to absolve you of at least some of your criminal culpability.
- Oakland criminal defense attorney Jim Hammer uses his inside knowledge as a former San Francisco Deputy District Attorney to defend clients accused of violating California’s law against the unlicensed sale of firearms throughout the Bay Area, including San Francisco, Berkeley, Marin County, and San Jose. If you would like to schedule a consultation with Mr. Hammer, please contact him at Shouse Law Group.
- Please feel free to contact our Nevada criminal defense attorneys Michael Becker and Neil Shouse for any questions relating to the illegal sale of firearms in Nevada. Their Nevada law offices are located in Reno and Las Vegas.