"Is that California Approved?" is one of the first questions out of the mouths of many potential gun buyers at Californian shops and gun shows. Unfortunately, California's semi-official stance at present is to refuse to comment on most questions of "approval".
California Compliance Devices
The Department of Justice has refused to comment on the various AR/AK compliance devices which have been submitted to it. To complicate this further, some devices (such as the Fab-Ten hook grip) are ATF-approved, and folks confuse that with California approval.
California Handgun List
The California Bureau of Firearms maintains a list of handguns certified for sale within the state. This impacts only the sale of new or used firearms from licensed dealers, not the sale of used firearms in private party transfers. The list is viewable online at http://certguns.doj.ca.gov/.
The certification process involves a number of drop tests (generally onto concrete from various heights), and any handgun which discharges itself when dropped is considered to have failed the test. This is why the handgun roster is also known as the "drop-test list". Each 'listing' is valid for (I think) a year, and there is no uniform "drop-off date" for handguns. This results in some guns falling off the list in one month, others falling off in another.
As of January 1st 2007, no new handgun may be submitted for drop-testing (and thus cannot be added to the list) unless it is equipped with both a magazine disconnect safety and a loaded chamber indicator. Existing handguns which are not thus equipped may be renewed, but these requirements apply going forward.
"California Approved" Long Arms
Due to the handgun roster, many Californians mistakenly believe that long guns must also be "CA approved". There is truly no such thing as a list of California-approved rifles. Unlike the handgun market, you may purchase anything which is not illegal.
Something which has helped to create this belief is that, over the years, certain rifles have been reviewed by the Department of Justice and have had 'approval letters' circulated about them. Examples of this include:
The DSA FAL (which was subsequently subject to seizures, then much wrangling over their legal status)
The "California Bushmaster" rifles made by Evans Gunsmithing and sold by GB Sales (approved by Ignatius Chinn, under his own authority - which more or less painted the DOJ into a corner later on)
The Robinson Arms M96CA, the first rifle sold by a manufacturer into California with the pistol grip simply taken off for the CA market. M96CA rifles were subsequently siezed in a number of areas under the allegation of being "assault rifles", despite having a copy of an official approval letter on DOJ letterhead shipped with each rifle.
As you can see, "CA Approved" status statistically raises your chances of being hassled by law enforcement. Other rifles have never been subject to specific California approval letters and such, and are no less legal than the rifles above. These rifles include the Kel-Tec SU-16CA, the Springfield M1A, Ruger Mini-14, etc.
Always bear in mind that the one and only true authority on "California approved" status for long guns, is the printed law. History has shown that "CA Approved" status is worth less than the paper it's printed on. That having been said, none of the various "off-list" compliance devices currently in use in California have been granted 'approval' status. This is partly in order to maintain a state of uncertainty in the California gun-owning public and slow public adoption of these rifles. However, given the trend of DOJ "approval letter" reversals, Californians should probably be glad that no letters have been issued lately.
California-Legal Assault Rifles
For all intents and purposes, the answer to most people who are asking about these is "no". You can't buy an assault weapon in California, unless you happen to fall into an exempted class and have the correct paperwork. These classes involve police officers with an approval letter from their commanders, and military personnel from other states stationed within California. You may, however, purchase weapons which would normally be configured as assault weapons, with their "assault weapon features" removed prior to your purchase. For instance, an AK-47 with the pistol grip removed, or an AR-15 with a 22LR conversion kit installed, etc.
-- SeanNewton - 04 Oct 2007