Fully automatic machine guns designed to take out planes during World War II. Short-barreled shotguns like those favored by action movie characters. Grenades, rocket launchers and tear gas.

All are deemed so destructive by the state of California that you need a special permit to possess or sell them.

California has more than 100 active dangerous weapons permits issued in the last five years, newly released records from the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Firearms show. It’s difficult to put the number of permits in context, because some people have multiple permits and the state won’t release application information on denials.

It’s also unclear how many weapons are covered by the permits. A permit holder could have one gun or hundreds.


To obtain a permit, you must not only meet basic legal requirements, such as having no felony convictions or documented mental health problems, but also give a good enough reason. It’s a similar process to getting a concealed handgun permit, except more thorough and aimed primarily at dealers who sell guns to law enforcement personnel, who are exempt from needing a permit.

Each applicant must provide references to state investigators. Applicants also must give clear and convincing evidence that there is a bona fide market or public necessity for the issuance of a dangerous weapons license or permit and that the applicants can satisfy that need without endangering public safety.”

The state won’t disclose reasons permit holders gave when applying. In response to a request for that information under the California Public Records Act, an attorney for the Bureau of Firearms wrote that the time and effort it would take to release the information “would be overwhelming” and that the public interest in fulfilling the request was minimal.

The other reason the state won’t say who has these permits is simple: The average gun owner isn’t legally allowed to buy most dangerous weapons sold by permitted dealers, and the firearms bureau doesn’t want to make these dealers’ stores targets for theft.

Examples of good cause recognized in the past include companies with government contracts, gunsmiths who repair certain types of guns and people with personal gun collections, according to the bureau.

But there’s a catch for personal collectors: You’re not allowed to fire the weapon.

Destructive device permit holders are required to submit to the state signed statements that their weapons were “not fired or discharged,” as well as an annual report of any public displays of the guns.

The state’s system is independent of the National Firearms Act, which covers similar types of guns and accessories such as suppressors, and is enforced by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Last week, the agency published its annual industry report, detailing the cumulative number of weapons registered under the act in every state as of this year.

This includes more than 29,000 machine guns and more than 13,000 short-barreled shotguns in California. The vast majority of these guns are registered to law enforcement agencies. The federal law also covers weapons that California does not, such as homemade guns and firearms designed to look like something else.

Unlike California’s system, which is stricter than federal law and issues permits for people rather than for weapons, individual guns are registered under federal law by serial number. Gun owners in many states are allowed to buy older machine guns, for example, that California residents could not. California gun dealers, meanwhile, could have both a permit from the state to possess machine guns and at the same time maintain a collection of guns registered under the federal law.

The byzantine rules that dictate what’s legal and what isn’t in California have prompted gun rights groups to publish flow charts online.

Among the more common weapons that require state permits are semi-automatic AR-15 rifles without a so-called bullet button, which require an extra step to remove the magazine and reload the gun. Traditional AR-15s without a bullet button are prohibited by California’s assault weapons ban; guns with a bullet button are legal. An additional 145,000 guns are grandfathered into the state law.

A major source of dangerous weapons permit holders are gun shops that cater to law enforcement, because police and federal agents can purchase guns more easily than other customers. Keeping up with demand from law enforcement is a major reason why the state introduced its permitting system.

That market is why Rob Adams, owner of the Sacramento Black Rifle gun store in Rocklin, applied for his assault weapons permit in 2012. Adams is a dealer for Glock’s Blue Label Program, which the prominent pistol maker uses to offer discounts on guns for a range of government employees, including current and retired law enforcement officers, military personnel, corrections officers, judges and parole officers.

“It’s a big part of our business. To lose this permit would really hurt us,” said Adams, who is vice president of a group of gun stores called the California Association of Federal Firearms Licensees.

Adams said state inspectors from the Department of Justice have visited his store more frequently lately, and he suspects his permit is the reason why. Adams must submit an annual inventory report to the department that details every assault weapon bought or sold at his store that year.

Movies and television shows are another prominent source of permits.

For years, Hollywood filmmakers supported an industry of prop companies that rented stocks of fully automatic machine guns for war movies such as “Saving Private Ryan” and the action series “Die Hard.” Although guns remain ubiquitous in movies, many are no longer real guns. The advent of computer graphics, coupled with safety concerns on set, has reduced the demand, supporting only a handful of these specialized prop companies.

Other, less common examples of businesses that apply for permits include tear gas dealers that sell to those with protective tear gas permits, such as banks.

This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

Matt Drange can be reached at mdrange@revealnews.org. Follow him on Twitter: @mattdrange.

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Matt Drange is a reporter for Reveal, covering the business of guns. He previously reported on Silicon Valley and the intersection of technology and the environment. He won a James Madison Freedom of Information Award from the Society of Professional Journalists' Northern California chapter for his work on the Toxic Trail investigation, which exposed how mismanagement of Superfund cleanup sites often leads to substantially more harm than good. Prior to joining Reveal, Drange worked for the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, where he wrote about malfeasance in state government and the influence of money in politics. Drange started his career covering police and courts for the Eureka Times-Standard in California. He earned a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and did his undergraduate work at Humboldt State University. Drange is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.