Large-capacity magazine restrictions
Large-capacity is legally defined as 'greater than 10 rounds'.
It is illegal to sell, manufacture or import large-capacity magazines.
It is legal to own, possess and use large-capacity magazines.
It is legal to purchase, own and possess 'parts kits', so long as such kits are never assembled into magazines inside California.
FFLs may sell large-capacity magazines to law enforcement; LEO may not transfer those magazines to non-LEO.
As part of expanding the definition of Assault Weapons with the passage of SB-23 in July 1999, prohibitions on magazine capacity sizes were introduced into the Penal Code. SB-23 added a new term, "large-capacity magazine." The penalty for violating Penal Code 12020 is a "wobbler" with a statute of limitations of three years.
The California Department of Justice issued a memo "New Laws Pertaining to Large Capacity Magazines and Assault Weapons" in 1999. It includes
Large Capacity Firearms Magazines Effective January 1, 2000, the manufacture, importation, sale, or transfer of any large capacity firearms magazine, except to specifically designated parties and under specified conditions, will be prohibited by law. Possession of large capacity magazines is not restricted by this law. All applicable federal laws and regulations regarding large capacity magazines remain in force and must continue to be observed.
Penal Code 12020 states:
12020 (a)(2) Commencing January 1, 2000, manufactures or causes to be manufactured, imports into the state, keeps for sale, or offers or exposes for sale, or who gives, or lends, any large- capacity magazine. 12020 (c)(25) As used in this section, "large-capacity magazine" means any ammunition feeding device with the capacity to accept more than 10 rounds, but shall not be construed to include any of the following: (A) A feeding device that has been permanently altered so that itcannot accommodate more than 10 rounds. (B) A .22 caliber tube ammunition feeding device. (C) A tubular magazine that is contained in a lever-action firearm.
The California Department of Justice Bureau of Firearms FAQ summarizes the restrictions well:
9. If I have a large-capacity magazine, do I need to get rid of it? No. Continued possession of large-capacity magazines (able to accept more than 10 rounds) that you owned in California before January 1, 2000, is not prohibited. However as of January 1, 2000, it is illegal to buy, manufacture, import, keep for sale, expose for sale, give or lend any large-capacity magazine in California except by law enforcement agencies, California peace officers, or licensed dealers. (PC Section 12020 (b)(19-29))
Simple possession of a large-capacity magazine is not prohibited. Note that it is illegal to offer or expose for sale a large-capacity magazine in California. This has the practical implication that one can not list a large-capacity magazine for sale on the internet to in or out of state buyers. One can disassemble the large-capacity magazine and sell the parts in or out of state. Note that the Bureau of Firearms statement that you can not buy large-capacity magazines is not supported by the Penal Code.
Large-capacity magazines that were legally possessed by their owner in California at any time prior to January 1, 2000 can be legally re-imported into California. If you were a past resident of California that possessed large-capacity magazines in the state prior to the ban, you can move back in with them. Current residents that legally possess large-capacity magazines can travel out of the state with those large-capacity magazines and return to the state (Penal Code 12020 (b)(23)).
Repairing existing large-capacity magazines
In a letter dated November 10, 2005, Deputy Attorney General Alison Merrilees answered a list of questions about the legality of repairing and replacing parts of legally possessed large-capacity magazines.
The letter clarifies that it is legal to replace parts of a legally possessed large-capacity magazine with parts of any vintage. It also states that the possession, sale, or import of all the parts of an otherwise prohibited large-capacity magazine is not illegal though assembling them into a new large-capacity magazine would be a crime.
The general rules regarding magazine repair appear to be that as long as one ends up with the same number of legally possessed large-capacity magazines, has a plausible path of replacement parts from the original possessed large-capacity magazine to the repaired magazine, and the magazine continues to work in the firearm it was originally designed to operate in, one would not be violating the law.
There are no restrictions on modifying a legally possessed large-capacity magazine to work in another firearm as long as the magazine continues to operate in the firearm it was originally designed for.
Manufacturing non large-capacity magazines
Penal Code 12020 (c)(25) states:
12020 (c)(25) As used in this section, "large-capacity magazine" means any ammunition feeding device with the capacity to accept more than 10 rounds, but shall not be construed to include any of the following: (A) A feeding device that has been permanently altered so that it cannot accommodate more than 10 rounds.
This means that one can manufacture non large-capacity magazines if the alterations to what would otherwise be a large-capacity magazine are permanent.
In sworn testimony, representatives of the California Department of Justice have stated that it is their opinion that the types of modifications presented in the failed "detachable magazine permanence" rulemaking would suffice to be permanent alterations to large-capacity magazines to exclude them from the law. The relevant alterations from the failed rulemaking include:
- Continuous ribbon or ribbons of welding
- A rivet fixed in place with epoxy
There are various exceptions to the prohibitions on import or sale of large-capacity magazines outlined in Penal Code 12020 (b)(19) - 12020 (b)(32).
A few of the notable exceptions:
- Sworn police officers can import, buy and manufacture large-capacity magazines. Most Reserve officers are included - see the memo at page 6 of the linked newsletter
Section 12020, subdivision (b)(20) is largely self-explanatory. A person who is properly identified as a reserve peace officer is a “sworn peace officer.” If the reserve peace officer is also “authorized to carry a firearm in the course and scope of his or her duties,” the reserve peace officer can lawfully purchase a large-capacity ammunition magazine in California.
- One can temporarily loan a large-capacity magazine to another person who is eligible to possess firearms and within the immediate vicinity of the owner of the large-capacity magazine - most commonly at a range.
- All California FFLs can purchase large-capacity magazines from anyone in the state of California.
- California FFLs can obtain a permit to purchase, import, or sell to certain allowed individuals.
- Armored Car Services can import, buy, or sell large-capacity magazines to or from anyone eligible to possess firearms.
Statute of Limitations
Penal Code 12020 (a) states:
12020 (a) (a)Any person in this state who does any of the following is punishable by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year or in the state prison:
A violation of 12020 is considered a "wobbler" (see e.g. In re Jorge M. (2000) 23 Cal.4th 866, 880.) in California as it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. The current jurisprudence in California is that the statute of limitations for a "wobbler" is the same as the statute of limitations for a felony.
Penal Code Section 801:
801 Except as provided in Sections 799 and 800, prosecution for an offense punishable by imprisonment in the state prison shall be commenced within three years after commission of the offense.
A district attorney must prove that a violator has actually imported or manufactured a large capacity magazine within the last three years.
Special Case: Assault Weapons
Semi-automatic centerfire rifles, without the capacity to accept a detachable magazine, are limited to 10 rounds; greater than 10 rounds becomes an 'assault weapon'.
So, otherwise legal rifles, equipped with a magazine release lock (commonly a "bullet button") and other features, can be made an 'assault weapon' merely by inserting a magazine with a capacity greater than 10 rounds.
If one legally owns large-capacity magazines for semi-automatic centerfire rifles, one can either configure such a rifle to be "featureless" (see description) or never use those magazines in a rifle with a magazine release lock.
Owners of Registered Assault Weapons may use any capacity magazine in those weapons, if he/she legally owned and possessed those magazines in California before 2000.
"Constructive possession" does not apply
The mere fact of possessing a large-capacity magazine and a rifle equipped with a magazine release lock does not create any legal risk. It is the actual assembly of such a magazine to such a rifle, and then the further possession of the combination, that is prohibited.