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One of the issues that generate a large amount of confusion is the simple question of what is a “loaded firearm” under California law. Unfortunately, in the recent past many California law enforcement agencies were not current on the state of the law and have spread misinformation on their websites and in their officer training. I want you to be able to take your gun to your office or the range without worrying about running afoul of California law and without any fear that you are improperly transporting it.

First, the actual definition of “loaded firearm” is found in the California Penal Code § 12031 (g):

“A firearm shall be deemed to be loaded for the purposes of this section when there is an unexpended car­tridge or shell in, or attached in any manner to, the firearm, including, but not limited to, in the firing chamber, magazine, or clip thereof attached to the firearm.”

As typical legalese, this definition isn’t all that clear. Luckily, in 1996 the California Appellate Court ruled on the interpretation of “loaded firearm” in People v. Clark, (1996) 45 Cal. App. 4th 1147, 1152. Mr. Clark was arrested for allegedly having a loaded shotgun because, even though there were no shells in the chamber, there were shells in a compartment in the stock of the firearm. The court held that “attached in any manner to” the firearm was intended to encompass a situation where a shell or cartridge might be attached to a firearm or “loaded” for firing by some unconventional method. The court said:

“Under the commonly understood meaning of the term “loaded,” a firearm is “loaded” when a shell or car­tridge has been placed into a position from which it can be fired; the shotgun is not “loaded” if the shell or cartridge is stored elsewhere and not yet placed in a firing position.”

This holding applies to all firearms and not just shotguns. As an example, some may be familiar with the Kel Tec SU-16CA, which is a semiautomatic .223 rifle that complies with California’s so called “Assault Weapon” feature restrictions. The SU-16CA allows you to store two 10-round magazines in the stock of the firearm. As long as there is no magazine with rounds in it in the magazine well of the SU-16CA and no round in the chamber, the SU-16CA is not “loaded” even when there are magazines with rounds in them inserted into magazine holders in the stock of that rifle.

This still leads to quite a bit of confusion as some individuals and even some in law enforcement think that a loaded magazine combined with a firearm in the possession of the same person is a loaded gun. I expect that much of that confusion arises due to obscure parts of the Penal Code that are, for example, allegedly designed to focus on curtailing gang activity or giving sentence enhancements for committing a felony. If you aren’t at a gun show (PC §12071.4 (g)), or in the State Capitol, legislative offices, office of the governor, or governor’s residence (PC §171 e), or committing gang crimes (PC §12021.5 (b)), then your firearm isn’t loaded if there is nothing in the chamber and no magazine in the magazine well, even if you have a maga­zine full of rounds in your pocket. Obviously you shouldn’t have rounds in a revolver’s cylinder or rounds in the permanently attached tube magazine of a shotgun or lever action rifle.

The California Highway Patrol has a very accurate description of what is legal in California as it relates to transporting firearms unloaded in their online FAQ:

‘If you wish to transport a handgun during your California visit, it should be carried unloaded in a locked con­tainer. In the absence of a suitable container, you may secure the unloaded handgun in the locked trunk of a passenger car. Ammunition may be kept in the same container or trunk, but the handgun must remain unloaded with no rounds in the cylinder and no loaded magazines in the magazine well.”

Thanks to People v. Clark, the operative definition of a loaded firearm is relatively common sense in California. Feel free to take magazines with rounds in them to the range in the same locked case as a hand­gun or in an unlocked case with a long arm. You can also skip the locked case for your handgun if you have a fully enclosed locking trunk in your vehicle. However, with the adoption of SUVs and the like, using a locked case when transporting an unloaded handgun is a smart common sense measure, especially due to restrictions on knowingly having a handgun in a school zone as defined in the Gun Free School Zones Act at Penal Code §626.9. Having your handgun in a locked container or a locked trunk fully exempts you from the Gun Free School Zones Act.

The final word here is, save yourself range time and convince family and friends to help you fill your maga­zines before you head off to the range. As long as your firearm is otherwise transported legally and doesn’t have a round in the chamber or rounds in a non-detachable magazine or cylinder, your firearm is legally unloaded under California law.

For more information:

People v. Clark:

Kel Tec SU-16CA:


Calguns Foundation wiki on “loaded”:

About the author: Gene Hoffman is the Chairmain of the Calguns Foundation, the co-inventor of the Bullet Button, a life member of the NRA, and a CRPA board member. When he’s not using his C&R FFL, punching holes in paper, or punching holes in unconstitutional laws, he amuses two darling daughters and can sometimes be found shopping for his next boat.

The Firing Line, California Rifle and Pistol Association, Inc. Entire contents copyrighted, all rights reserved.