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Alter Firearm ID Number

Penal Code 23900 PC - Altering Identification Information on a Firearm in California

In the State of California, identifying information on a firearm is a critical component of the regulatory process. It is essential in helping law enforcement keep track of ownership and solve gun-related crimes.

Altering Identification Information on a Firearm in California - Penal Code 23900 PC
PC 23900 makes it a felony crime to intentionally alter or remove a firearm's identification number.

That's why altering or removing the identification information on a firearm is a felony offense under Penal Code 23900 PC. If convicted of this crime, you could face up to three years in state prison.

Simply put, you can face criminal charges if you attempt to alter the identification of your firearm. The primary purpose of this law is to punish people who lawfully purchase a gun and use it in a crime but attempt to disguise that they own the firearm to avoid detection by police.

PC 23900 says, “Any person who changes, alters, removes, or obliterates the name of the maker, model, manufacturer's number, or other mark of identification, including any distinguishing number or mark assigned by the Department of Justice, on any pistol, revolver, or any other firearm, without first having secured written permission from the department to make that change, alteration, or removal shall be punished by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170."

In other words, this statute makes it a crime to remove or alter a gun's name maker, model, manufacturer's number, or DOJ-assigned number or mark. Let's review this law in more detail below.

What Does the Law Say?

Penal Code 23900 PC makes it illegal to change, alter, remove, or obliterate the name of the maker, model, manufacturer's number, or any other distinguishing mark of identification on any firearm without express written permission from the United States Department of Justice.

The purpose of this law is to deter the misuse of firearms and to assist in the investigation and prosecution of crimes involving firearms.

Elements of the Crime

To convict you under PC 23900, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that:

  • You changed, altered, removed, or obliterated the identification information on a firearm; and
  • You did so without receiving express written permission from the Department of Justice.

Other things to know about this law:

  • This law applies to all firearms, such as pistols, revolvers, shotguns, and rifles.
  • Note that PC 23900 does not explicitly reference willful intent—only the act itself. This means that while you can still claim ignorance or no willful intent as a defense, it won't automatically prevent you from being convicted of the crime.

Why Is Altering Identifying Markers a Crime?

If a firearm's identifying markers are altered or removed, it makes it difficult, if not impossible, for law enforcement to do any of the following:

  • Verifying that a firearm was legally purchased;
  • Verifying that the firearm was lawfully registered;
  • Tracing a firearm used in a crime back to its owner.

Altering identifying markers on a firearm can also make it easier for criminals to resell stolen guns without detection or prosecution.

For all the above reasons, California penalizes altering identifying markers on a firearm with the same severity level as many other gun crimes. In other words, making a firearm untraceable carries a similar penalty to using that gun in a crime.

What are Some Examples?

EXAMPLE 1: David decides to file off the serial number from his registered handgun. Knowing that this action will make it challenging to trace the firearm back to him, he does so. He intends to sell the gun on the black market without a paper trail. David can be charged with violating PC 23900.

EXAMPLE 2: Ashley is a pawnshop owner who acquires a vintage rifle. She notices that the model number and manufacturer's mark are visible on the firearm. To increase the rifle's value as a "rare, unidentified model," she removes these identifying marks. Ashley has removed identifying marks from the firearm, constituting a clear violation of PC 23900.

EXAMPLE 3: Bill is a dealer in vintage firearms and other antiques. He acquires a rare piece made in the nineteenth century. Bill desires to restore the antique gun to its original state to increase its value. Since the firearm is no longer operational, he requests written permission from the Department of Justice to remove the identifying marks that had not been present when the gun was first manufactured. The Justice Department approves the request. Bill would not be guilty under PC 23900 because the government permitted him to alter the firearm.

What Are the Related Laws?

Several California laws are related to Penal Code 23900 PC altering a firearm's identification number, such as the following:

What Are the Penalties for PC 23900?

Violation of PC 23900 is a felony offense in California. If you are convicted of altering the identification information on a firearm, you could face the following penalties:

  • Up to $10,000 in fines; and
  • Sixteen months, two years, or three years in state prison.

What Are the Defenses for PC 23900?

While violating PC 23900 is a reasonably straightforward offense, there are several defense strategies that a skilled California criminal defense attorney may employ, as discussed below.

Defenses for Altering a Firearm’s Identification Number
Contact our law firm for legal advice.

Perhaps we can argue that you are the victim of mistaken identity. Your attorney may contend that you did not alter the identifying information. For example, maybe you were storing the firearm for someone else without knowing the identifying information had been altered.

Perhaps we can argue accidental alteration. While PC 23900 doesn't make willful intent a key element, your attorney could still say that the altered markings were accidental. For example, perhaps the gun was dropped and scraped, obscuring the identification number in the process.

Perhaps we can argue that you had written permission. If you received written permission from the Justice Department to alter the firearm, you cannot be convicted of a crime if you present that information.

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