Published by the Law Offices of Bruce Colodny
By Bruce Colodny, The California Gun Attorney
Revised & Copyright © 2017
How do you legally carry firearms in a car, truck or motor home in California?
First, under California law the firearm must be unloaded and the legal definition of a loaded firearm depends upon the circumstances. Under most circumstances, a firearm is considered loaded when there is a live round of ammunition " . . . 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 . . . " For example, a semi-automatic handgun with an empty firing chamber and a loaded magazine inserted in the magazine well is considered loaded.
Locking Hard Case
Second, in addition to being unloaded, the Penal Code provides additional requirements for the legal transportation of handguns in motor vehicles. These must either be locked in the vehicle's trunk, or in a locked container in the vehicle other than the utility or glove compartment. "Locked container" means a secure container that is fully enclosed and locked by a padlock, key lock, combination lock, or similar locking device. Note: these additional requirements also apply to the transportation of registered "Assault Weapons".
"Utility Compartment" is not defined in the Penal Code; a handgun should not be transported in the center console (even if locked) or in the storage area present behind the rear seat in most "hatchback" type automobiles. Due to the uncertainty in current California law, I also advise people against the use of the various storage compartments found in today's popular sport utility vehicles. If you drive a pickup truck, should you put an unloaded handgun in a locked, cross-bed toolbox, bolted to the bed behind the cab? As you can see this is a "gray" area, so to be cautious, I advise against this. While most of us would consider a cross-bed toolbox to be the functional equivalent of a vehicle's trunk, remember the Penal Code does provide an exception for vehicle trunks, yet it specifically prohibits the use of, and does not define, a "utility" compartment.
At this point many of you are probably thinking, "My vehicle doesn't have a trunk, so where do I put my unloaded handgun?"
I advise that you use a locking hard case. Locking hard cases for handguns are available at reasonable cost and when used correctly, (i.e. when the handgun is unloaded and the case is locked) they are the best method to ensure compliance with California law. Even if your vehicle does have a trunk, I recommend the use of a locked hard case to transport all firearms, both handguns and long guns (rifles and shotguns), in California. Why? Effective January 1, 2012, California law prohibits the open carry of unloaded handguns in or on vehicles, and, on the person in public places and on public streets in an incorporated city and in those areas of unincorporated county territory where the discharge of firearms is prohibited. Effective January 1, 2013, California law prohibits the open carry of unloaded rifles and shotguns on the person while outside of a vehicle, person, in public places and on public streets, in an incorporated city and in those areas of unincorporated county territory where the discharge of firearms is prohibited. So even if your vehicle does have a trunk, you should still be prepared to lawfully transport your unloaded firearms in a locked container while you are outside your vehicle. The Penal Code lists numerous exceptions to these requirements but do not rely upon them unless you are certain that they apply to your situation, and, consider that it might be very difficult or impossible to prove in court, that you fell within an exception.
When driving a motor home, it is treated as a motor vehicle and you must transport your firearms as I have outlined above. However, when you are camping in your motor home it may be treated as a residence. The Penal Code prohibition against carrying a loaded firearm provides an exception for a temporary residence or campsite, but unfortunately, the terms "temporary residence" or "campsite", are not defined, so this is another "gray" area. If you have entered an established campground and hooked up, this should qualify as a temporary residence or campsite, however, if you have merely pulled into a highway rest stop to sleep for a few hours, this is not likely to qualify. If you are prosecuted for having a loaded firearm in your motor home, the issue of whether you were at a temporary residence or campsite would be a "question of fact" to be decided by a jury. One final word of caution regarding firearms in motor homes - public campgrounds may have additional legal restrictions applicable to firearms.
The only departure I will make from this discussion of California law is to mention that if you meet certain requirements under Federal law, you may legally transport a firearm by motor vehicle during interstate travel despite state or local laws to the contrary. You may transport the firearm for any lawful purpose from a place in a state where you may legally possess and carry it, to any other place in another state where you may legally possess and carry it. In addition, the firearm must be unloaded and neither the firearm nor any ammunition can be readily or directly accessible from the passenger compartment. If the vehicle does not have a compartment separate from the passenger compartment, the firearm or ammunition must be in a locked container other than the glove compartment or console. Please also read my article Driving Interstate With Firearms?
Historically, most California arrests for carrying a unlawfully concealed handgun or carrying a loaded firearm in a motor vehicle have resulted only in the filing of misdemeanor charges. However, you can be charged with a felony if your vehicle contains an unlawfully concealed handgun that is not listed in your name in the AFS (the California Automated Firearms System database record created when you purchase a handgun and go through the 10 day waiting period) and there is ammunition for that handgun either in your "immediate possession" or "readily accessible" to you. You can be charged with a felony if your vehicle contains a loaded handgun which is not listed in your name in the AFS.