It hasn't been uncommon for California residents to buy guns out of state and then bring them home. Today, though, buying a gun in another state and bringing it or shipping it home into California is illegal, with a few exceptions. A California law requires out-of-state guns to be shipped to a licensed California dealer.
For information on legally storing guns in California, see our article Gun Storage Laws in California.
Under federal law, dealers who are selling to out-of-state residents must ship the gun to a licensed California dealer to complete the transaction. (18 U.S.C.A. § 922.) The recipient dealer must follow state law, by honoring the ten-day waiting period, completing a purchaser background check, and requiring that the purchaser have a handgun safety certificate. (The law exempts licensed dealers, manufacturers, and others.) But this federal law has often not been enforced, due to lack of resources.
As of January 1, 2015, a law in California supplants the federal law. It, too, prohibits California residents from buying guns out of state and simply driving home with them (or shipping them home). Now, the seller must ship to a licensed California dealer, who will treat the event like any in-state transaction, involving the waiting period, background check, and safety certificate. (Cal. Penal Code §§ 26840, 27540, 27545, and 27585.)
The law took effect on January 1, 2015, and it specifically applies to guns that were purchased or obtained after January 1, 2015. This means that a California resident who obtained his gun before January 2015 (but who kept it out of state) would not need to ship the firearm into California per the new rules.
Licensed dealers, collectors, wholesalers, importers, manufacturers, military personnel and others are exempt from the rule. For example, someone who gains custody of a firearm as the result of being an executor or administrator of an estate, or someone who obtains the firearm through bequest or through intestate inheritance, would be exempt (as long as certain conditions are met).
Although the new state law closely tracks existing federal law, some differences are apparent. For example, federal law exempts the loan or rental of a firearm for temporary use for sporting purposes, but the California law does not.
The new law comes with specific penalties. If the firearm is a handgun, the crime may be charged as a “wobbler,” that is, as either a misdemeanor or felony, subject to the prosecutor’s discretion. The punishment for this misdemeanor is up to six months in county jail or a fine of up to $1,000, or both; for a felony, sixteen months, or two year or three years in state prison.
For violations involving all other firearms, the offense is a misdemeanor. (Cal. Penal Code §§ 18, 19, 27590). For more on California sentencing, see California Misdemeanor Crimes by Class and Sentences and California Felony Crimes by Class and Sentences.)
The out-of-state dealer from whom you've purchased a firearm will be responsible for shipping it to a licensed dealer in California. The United States Postal Service (USPS) does not ship handguns, with few exceptions. The USPS will, however, ship long guns, such as a rifle or shotgun. You can read the regulations on the USPS website.
A common or contract carrier, such as Federal Express or UPS, is practically speaking the only way to ship a handgun to a firearm dealer in California. The UPS site has extensive information on Shipping Firearms or Ammunition. The Federal Express article on Prohibited or Restricted Articles is similarly comprehensive.
For more information, visit the FAQ page on firearms prepared by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Updated June 26, 2018