A few people are rumored to actually enjoy shooting and firearms in the state of California. Many of those wonder just what a California-legal AR-15 is. Additionally, some people end up having to move to California, for whatever reason, and wonder if they can take their tacticool paper puncher with them.
Before we get started, let’s stipulate that we aren’t lawyers here and this isn’t legal advice. If you need legal advice, consult an attorney. California’s gun laws can be read in all their glory by visiting CA’s Bureau of Firearms website.
WARNING: This article can expose you to information. Information is known in the state of California to cause cancer.
So, let’s get into what makes AR-15 rifles (or as most of the locals there say, “assault rifles”) legal in the
nanny state of California. The Golden State is inimical to gun rights and “allowing” its citizens to have firearms with features that Sacramento has determined are noxious. Anything that’s fun in any way, shape, or form is basically illegal in California.
California mandates that all semi-automatic rifles be “featureless,” meaning that they must lack any features deemed to be “dangerous” by the state. Such features generally make the rifle easy to manipulate and shoot or more concealable. Or what-have-you. This applies just as much to AK-47-pattern rifles or any other semi-auto rifle platform as well as the AR-15 family.
It used to be that California allowed people to register a non-compliant (but otherwise legal) AR-15 as an “assault weapon,” but that loophole was closed in 2018. There are some options here, but the gist is that you need to have a California-legal AR-15 or live elsewhere.
What features must be absent for a rifle to be deemed featureless?
Rifles in California must have a fixed stock. Folding stocks or telescoping stocks are apparently dangerous. (No AR pistol for you, come back 1 year! Actually, don’t; gun laws in CA only get more restrictive.) Granted, this part is easy; if you pin a telescoping stock, that makes the stock California-compliant.
A thumbhole stock is also verboten, so no-go there.
A featureless rifle cannot have a pistol grip. The reason for this is anyone’s guess. California-legal AR-15 rifles usually have a stock with extra material added to them so the pistol grip is joined to the stock (see the FN rifle at the top) or is extended enough to prevent the shooter from wrapping their thumb around it. No forward pistol grip may be installed, either as that’s somehow a threat, too.
The rifle’s magazine cannot hold more than 10 rounds. Anything more and it’s considered a high capacity magazine.
The rifle may not have a flash suppressor. A muzzle brake is okay, but flash suppressors are beyond the pale. Grenade launcher and flare launcher attachments are also strictly verboten.
EDIT: Apparently I missed a key distinction about the magazine system. This is my fault, and I apologize. I like to jokingly say that I promise to feel bad about nasty things the comments section says, but this time I actually do. (About the mistake, anyway, not the nasty things people say. If you need catharsis by saying awful things about people on the internet, go right on ahead.) This was a blunder on my part, and I’m sorry about that. Mea Culpa
California law requires any rifle registered as an “assault rifle” to have a fixed magazine. Prior to 2018, you could get away with a magazine release that required more than a finger to actuate; magazine release buttons (aka “bullet buttons“) that could be actuated by pressing them with an appropriately sized/shaped object (like a bullet, hence the name) would qualify, but that’s yesterday’s news. Instead, the magazine must be fixed and integral to the firearm’s action.
The firearm’s action must be opened for the magazine to be released and reloaded by opening the upper and lower.
Currently, California’s “high-capacity” magazine ban is in flux due to court actions, but given the Ninth Circuit’s propensity to err on the side of gun control, a 10-round magazine restriction is likely to stay for the time being.
If a rifle is converted to or comes from the factory as a featureless rifle, detachable magazines are acceptable to use. You do not need to fix the magazine UNLESS you convert what would otherwise be considered an “assault rifle” to avoid having to surrender it.
You can buy a rifle that’s made with this feature, or purchase a kit to either install yourself or have installed by a gunsmith. The systems made by AR Maglock (pictured) are popular for this purpose.
Now, a number of companies sell California-legal AR-15s, so anyone who lives in that state who wants one can (still, for now) buy one if they so chose. Additionally, a number of companies will convert a standard AR-15 to a featureless rifle.
What if I’m moving to California, you ask?
It’s basically like what Charlemagne told the Saxons: Convert or die. (Well maybe not die. Go to jail is more like it.)
Previously, non-compliant AR-15 rifles could be registered as an assault weapon, but that loophole closed as of July 1, 2018. You can surrender your rifle or convert it to a featureless rifle.
The good news is conversion is rather simple. A few different companies make a magazine locking device that will satisfy the state’s requirements (check to make sure they are compliant, as not all of them are) and a California-compliant stock such as a Thordsen FRS or Hera CQR California-Compliant stock can easily be attached. Taking off a forward pistol grip is easy enough, as is removing a flash suppressor and – if desired – installing a muzzle brake.
DIY enthusiasts who feel up to it, according to Caligunner, can also convert the magazine lock with a few simple tools. You simply remove the bolt catch from the lower receiver and take out the magazine release.
You then tap the magazine release button hole with a 6-32 drill and tap set to enlarge and thread the hole. After you insert the 10-round magazine of your choice, replace the magazine catch, then insert and tighten down a ⅜” set screw. This fixes the magazine in place. Replace the bolt catch, and re-attach the upper receiver to the lower. Prior to 2018, you could have installed a “bullet button” device requiring a tool to drop the magazine, but the sun has set on that provision.
The way the wind’s blowing, this isn’t likely to be the last anti-AR-15 legislation passed in California. However, as of 2019, buying a California-legal AR-15 or converting one to a featureless rifle are pretty much your only options. Good luck.