Whether they purchase paintball guns or participate in a paintball game, enthusiasts living in the Golden State should understand that California places these guns under the legal banner of "imitation firearms." As it does for real firearms, the state has strict laws on what individuals who own paintball guns can do with them and where they can do it.
Types of Paintball Guns
Paintball guns are firearms that operate using compressed air to propel paintballs, or markers, through the gun's barrel. The balls consist of colorful dyes in gelatin capsules. They have an air tank that differentiates them from other guns, but they can look like real firearms from a distance.
There are two types of paintball guns. The first kind is the electro-pneumatically operated paintball gun, which does not have mechanical parts, and the second is the mechanical paintball gun, which has several different subgroups:
- Pump or bolt action guns that need resetting between shots.
- Double-action guns with a trigger that fires and resets the gun's mechanism.
- Throwback semi-automatic guns that contain valve-released gases to reset the firing mechanism.
- Blow forward semi-automatic guns with valve gases that control the firing mechanism.
- Pneumatically operated semi-automatic guns that have a valve-regulated, low-pressure pneumatic piston linked to the gun's trigger and firing mechanism.
Imitation Firearms in California
A paintball gun is an "imitation firearm," according to California Penal Code Section 12556. This definition also includes objects such as BB guns, toy guns, firearm replicas or any other devices that someone could reasonably believe was a gun or that expels projectiles through the force of carbon dioxide air pressure or spring action.
California state law bans altering, changing or otherwise removing colors or markings on an imitation firearm or device to make it look more like a real gun. Imitation firearms manufactured after July 1, 2005, must have a visible warning advisory on their packaging at the time of sale that says:
- Law enforcement officers or others may mistake the imitation firearm for a real gun.
- Altering its mandated markings or colors to make the product look more like a real firearm is not only dangerous but potentially illegal.
- Displaying or brandishing an imitation firearm publicly may confuse people and also be a crime.
Where Are Paintball Guns Prohibited?
In California, a person cannot display a paintball gun or any other imitation firearm in public, including in motor vehicles or in buildings open to the general public, front yards, parking lots, plazas, streets and sidewalks. They cannot bring it into a public transit facility's sterile area if there is a statement posted providing reasonable notice of their ban.
A person cannot bring an imitation firearm into California's State Capitol including its legislative offices, the governor's office or those of other constitutional officers, or into a room where the Senate or Assembly conducts a hearing. Sacramento's 10th, L, 15th and N Streets are also off-limits to imitation firearms, which surround the Capitol and have visible posts providing reasonable notice of their ban and warning of arrest for those who violate it.
There are some exceptions to this rule. The gun laws state that the public display rules regarding imitation firearms, including paintball guns, does not apply under these circumstances:
- When using them in a movie or theatrical production.
- While hunting.
- When displayed in a presentation case or on a wall mount.
- While in parades.
Paintball Guns and Commerce
The state of California also bans the distribution, manufacturing, purchasing, selling, shipping, transportation or reception of an imitation firearm for commercial purposes. Exceptions to this rule are:
- An imitation firearm that is a nonfiring collector's copy with historical significance and is part of a sale of a wall mount or presentation case.
- Imitation firearms that have a surface of specific bright colors.
- Imitation firearms that are fully transparent, leaving its contents visible.
- Spot marker imitation firearms that expel projectiles of 10mm caliber or larger.
These laws do not prevent the distribution, manufacture, purchase, sale, shipping, transportation or reception of an imitation firearm by mail or in any other way under specific circumstances. For example:
- If exportation through interstate or foreign commerce occurs.
- If theatrical or stage productions, including television and motion pictures, require them.
- If a certified or regulated sports competition or event requires them.
- If the military and civil defense need them for or ceremonial or general activities.
- If public or private schools choose to display them.
- If the device has an exterior surface of white, bright red, orange, yellow, green, blue, pink or purple colors, either alone or as the dominant color in combination with other hues in any patterns, as federal regulations require.
- If the device is translucent and makes its contents fully visible.
Paintball Laws and Individual Ownership
California law prohibits:
- Selling a paintball gun to a person under 18 years old without permission from their parents or legal guardian.
- Bringing a paintball gun or any imitation firearm on public or private school grounds in schools from grades K-12 by a minor unless they have permission, in writing, from a school principal.
- Brandishing or exhibiting the gun in a threatening way in which a reasonable individual would fear danger, except for self-defense.
- Ownership of a paintball gun by a convicted felon, but they can still play.
An individual that violates California's imitation firearm laws faces an infraction as a first offense, which results in a $100 fine; a second offense incurs a $300 fine. An offender faces a misdemeanor charge for third and subsequent violations with penalties of a fine, jail time, or both.
Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.