Penal Code 16520 PC – Definition of a “Firearm” in California

Penal Code 16520 PC is the California statute that provides the legal definition for the term “firearm.”

The code section states:

“(a) As used in this part, “firearm” means a device, designed to be used as a weapon, from which is expelled through a barrel, a projectile by the force of an explosion or other form of combustion…

(c) As used in the following provisions, “firearm” also includes a rocket, rocket propelled projectile launcher, or similar device containing an explosive or incendiary material, whether or not the device is designed for emergency or distress signaling purposes…”

Examples of "firearms” under PC 16520 include:

  • pistols,
  • revolvers,
  • handguns, and
  • shotguns (including short-barreled shotguns).

A person may legally own a gun if he has a valid handgun safety certificate, and does not meet any of the following conditions:

  1. is a convicted felon,
  2. is a person who is addicted to narcotics,
  3. is a person with two or more convictions under Penal Code 417, California's law against brandishing a weapon, and
  4. A person convicted of certain misdemeanor offenses.

Please note that other prohibited conditions do apply.

In California, a person must hold a valid permit in order to lawfully sell or transfer a gun. A sale or transfer without a permit results in a violation of Penal Code 26500, unlicensed sale of firearms in California.

A person that violates PC 26500 is charged with a misdemeanor. The crime is punishable by:

  • imprisonment in the county jail for up to six months, and/or
  • a maximum $1,000 fine.

Please also note that it is a crime in California for a person to:

A violation of either statute is typically charged as a misdemeanor. The crimes are punishable by:

  • imprisonment in the county jail for up to one year, and/or
  • a maximum fine of $1,000.

Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:

man holding revolver
Penal Code 16520 PC is the California statute that provides the legal definition for the term “firearm.”

1. What is the legal definition of “firearm” under Penal Code 16520?

Under PC 16520, a “firearm” is:

  1. any device,
  2. designed to be used as a weapon,
  3. from which is expelled through a barrel,
  4. a projectile,
  5. by the force of any explosion or other forms of combustion.1

Examples of "firearms,” often generically referred to as "guns,” include (but are not limited to):

  • pistols,
  • revolvers,
  • handguns,
  • rifles (including short-barreled rifles),
  • shotguns (including short-barreled shotguns), and
  • the frame or receiver of any of the above.2

Also included in the definition of "firearms" are:

  • rockets,
  • rocket-propelled projectile launchers, and
  • similar devices containing an explosive or incendiary material.3

Please note that Penal Code 16520 specifically states that the following are not firearms:

  • unloaded antique firearms,4 and
  • destructive devices.5

2. Who may legally own or possess a firearm in California?

A person may legally own a gun if he has a valid handgun safety certificate, and is not one of the following:

  1. a convicted felon,6
  2. a person who is addicted to narcotics,7
  3. a person with two or more convictions under Penal Code 417, California's law against brandishing a weapon,8
  4. a person convicted of certain misdemeanor offenses,9
  5. a person who suffers from mental illness,10 and
  6. a minor (that is, anyone under 18).11

3. Who may legally sell a firearm in California?

According to Penal Code 26500, a person must hold a valid permit in order to lawfully sell or transfer firearms.12

Please note that a license to sell firearms does not give a party the right to sell all firearms. It means that he is licensed to sell only those legal firearms specified on the permit.

A person that violates PC 26500 is charged with a misdemeanor.13 The crime is punishable by:

  • imprisonment in the county jail for up to six months, and/or
  • a maximum $1,000 fine.

Note these penalties are for every firearm that a person sells, leases, or transfers without a permit.14

4. Can a person carry either a loaded firearm or an unloaded firearm?

California law makes it a crime for a person to carry either a loaded firearm or an unloaded firearm.

Penal Code 25850 PC makes it a crime to carry a loaded firearm in a vehicle or public place.15

Similarly, Penal Code 26350 PC makes it a crime to carry both loaded and unloaded handguns in public.16

A violation of either statute is typically charged as a misdemeanor. The crimes are punishable by:

  • imprisonment in the county jail for up to one year, and/or
  • a maximum fine of $1,000.

5. What are the California laws regarding “assault weapons?”

Penal Code 30600 PC is California's law regarding assault weapons and .50 BMG (Browning Machine Gun) rifles. This section prohibits:

  • manufacturing,
  • selling,
  • giving away,
  • lending, and/or
  • possessing

assault weapons and BMG rifles, except in very specific circumstances.17

Although there is no set definition of an “assault weapon,” the California Attorney General has described them as, "highly dangerous offensive weapons which are unambiguously hazardous...they are of the same type that soldiers typically use when fighting in a war."18

Penal Code 30510 PC lists over 70 types of rifles, pistols, and shotguns that are all classified as assault weapons.

Some examples include (but are not limited to):

  • all AK series rifles,
  • Uzi submachine guns, and
  • the Striker 12 shotgun.19

Were you accused of committing an illegal act with a “firearm” in California? Call us for help…

california gun attorneys
Call us for help at (855) LAW-FIRM

If you or someone you know has been accused of a crime involving a “firearm,” as defined in Penal Code 16520 PC, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation. We can be reached 24/7 at 855-LawFirm.


Legal References:

  1. California Penal Code 16520a PC. This code section states: “(a) As used in this part, “firearm” means a device, designed to be used as a weapon, from which is expelled through a barrel, a projectile by the force of an explosion or other form of combustion.”

  2. California Penal Code 16520b PC.

  3. California Penal Code 16520c PC.

  4. California Penal Code 16520d PC.

  5. California Penal Code 16520e PC.

  6. California Penal Code 29800a1 PC.

  7. See same.

  8. California Penal Code 29800a2 PC.

  9. California Penal Code 29805 PC.

  10. California Welfare and Institutions Code 8100.

  11. California Penal Code 29610 PC.

  12. California Penal Code 26500 PC.

  13. See same.

  14. See same.

  15. California Penal Code 25850 PC.

  16. California Penal Code 26350 PC.

  17. California Penal Code 30600 PC.

  18. "The Attorney General maintains the weapons listed in section 12276 [now section 30600] are ‘highly dangerous offensive weapons which are unambiguously hazardous. Assault weapons are typically used by soldiers in a war..."

  19. California Penal Code 30510 PC.

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