Caveat – Just because doing something is not illegal it does not mean that you cannot be arrested, prosecuted, fined and imprisoned for not breaking the law. In two separate cases the US Supreme Court has held that actual innocence is insufficient reason to release one from prison or to prevent his execution.
In July of 1967, in response to racial minorities arming themselves during the Civil Rights Movement, the California Legislature enacted a ban on the Unloaded Open Carry of firearms. Dubbed the Black Panther Open Carry Ban by the press, this was not the first gun ban enacted during the Civil Rights Movement. Illinois had enacted a ban in 1962 to which California patterned its 1967 ban. New York, New Jersey and Oklahoma enacted similar bans in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Effective January 1, 2012 & January 1, 2013 a ban on the Open Carry of modern, unloaded handguns and long guns, respectively, went into effect in California.
Although exempt from the unloaded open carry bans, it is still illegal to openly carry unloaded “antiques” in the same places it was illegal to openly carry unloaded modern firearms before the bans went into effect except as otherwise permitted by law. For example, antique handguns within 1,000 feet of a K-12 school must be unloaded an in a fully enclosed locked container and antique long guns must be unloaded. It is generally illegal to possess a firearm, regardless of whether or not it is unloaded or in a locked container, in a school or on the grounds of a school without permission from the school. The same is true of most state and local government buildings. Note well that if you have a California CCW, the automatic exemption for school grounds no longer exists. You can still carry a handgun within 1,000 feet of a school if you have a California CCW but not on the grounds of the school (including its parking lots) without prior permission from the school.
Exempted from the Unloaded Open Carry bans were Unloaded “antique” firearms which includes modern, firing reproductions as defined below:
California Penal Code section 16520(d)(5) & (6):
Section 16520(d) – As used in the following provisions, “firearm” does not include an unloaded antique firearm:
(5) Chapter 6 (commencing with Section 26350) of Division 5 of Title 4.
(6) Chapter 7 (commencing with Section 26400) of Division 5 of Title 4.
PC 26350 is the Unloaded Handgun Open Carry ban.
PC 26400 is the Unloaded Long Gun Open Carry ban.
PC 16170(b) As used in Section 16520…”antique firearm” has the same
meaning as in Section 921(a)(16) of Title 18 of the United States Code.
921(a)(16) of Title 18 of the United States Code:
(16) The term “antique firearm” means—
(A) any firearm (including any firearm with a matchlock, flintlock, percussion cap, or similar type of ignition system) manufactured in or before 1898; or
(B) any replica of any firearm described in subparagraph (A) if such replica—
(i) is not designed or redesigned for using rimfire or conventional centerfire fixed ammunition, or
(ii) uses rimfire or conventional centerfire fixed ammunition which is no longer manufactured in the United States and which is not readily available in the ordinary channels of commercial trade; or
(C) any muzzle loading rifle, muzzle loading shotgun, or muzzle loading pistol, which is designed to use black powder, or a black powder substitute, and which cannot use fixed ammunition. For purposes of this subparagraph, the term “antique firearm” shall not include any weapon which incorporates a firearm frame or receiver, any firearm which is converted into a muzzle loading weapon, or any muzzle loading weapon which can be readily converted to fire fixed ammunition by replacing the barrel, bolt, breechblock, or any combination thereof.
Definition of “Loaded”
Caveat – Simply having ammunition in your immediate possession along with a firearm can be a crime.
(a) As used in Section 25800, a firearm shall be deemed to
be “loaded” whenever both the firearm and the unexpended ammunition
capable of being discharged from the firearm are in the immediate
possession of the same person.
(b) As used in Chapter 2 (commencing with Section 25100) of
Division 4 of Title 4, in subparagraph (A) of paragraph (6) of
subdivision (c) of Section 25400, and in Sections 25850 to 26055,
(1) A firearm shall be deemed to be “loaded” when there is an
unexpended cartridge or shell, consisting of a case that holds a
charge of powder and a bullet or shot, 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.
(2) Notwithstanding paragraph (1), a muzzle-loader firearm shall
be deemed to be loaded when it is capped or primed and has a powder
charge and ball or shot in the barrel or cylinder.
PC 17295. (a) For purposes of Chapter 6 (commencing with Section 26350) of Division 5 of Title 4, a handgun shall be deemed "unloaded" if it is not "loaded" within the meaning of subdivision (b) of Section 16840. (b) For purposes of Chapter 7 (commencing with Section 26400) of Division 5 of Title 4, a firearm that is not a handgun shall be deemed "unloaded" if it is not "loaded" within the meaning of subdivision (b) of Section 16840.
Definition of Locked Container
16850. As used in Sections 17740, 23925, 25105, 25205, 25135, and
25610, in Article 3 (commencing with Section 25505) of Chapter 2 of
Division 5 of Title 4, in Chapter 6 (commencing with Section 26350)
of Division 5 of Title 4, and in Chapter 7 (commencing with Section
26400) of Division 5 of Title 4, “locked container” means a secure
container that is fully enclosed and locked by a padlock, keylock,
combination lock, or similar locking device. The term “locked
container” does not include the utility or glove compartment of a
The Full Text of the Unloaded Open Carry Bans
Here is a link to AB 144, the ban on openly carrying modern unloaded handguns.
Here is a link to AB 1527, the ban on openly carrying modern unloaded firearms that are not handguns. Since short barreled rifles and shotguns require special permits issued by the state to possess and transport, for all intents and purposes AB 1527 is a “Long Gun Open Carry Ban.”
The California Code Online
Here is a link to the California Penal Code.
Here is a searchable link to all of the California Code sections.
Here is a searchable link to a database of legal decisions so you can find out how the various California Code sections have been interpreted by the courts.
The answer to any question regarding the possession, transportation and/or carrying of firearms in California should always begin with “Depends” and the question should be limited to a specific, narrowly defined place and set of circumstances.