Officially, the only hard rule about painting your gun is that you cannot obscure the serial number or any other statutorily required markings. But the biggest limits on custom painting guns are when it makes the gun look like a toy. But what does that entail?
What custom paint jobs make a real gun look like a toy?
In general, it is illegal to paint a real gun to look like a toy gun. For example, custom gun painting that puts bright orange on the tip so it looks like a paintball gun is generally illegal. Painting a gun in the colors legally reserved for toy guns can get you in trouble, too.
What limits do regulators put on custom paint jobs?
Many gun manufacturers will make painted guns, but they’ll limit it to traditional colors like black, brown, tan, green or a camouflage pattern. They generally will not paint a gun a neon color associated with toys like bright green. But legally, you can paint your AR-15 pink or purple. This isn’t illegal anywhere, because no one makes toy guns in these colors. The problems arise when you use the colors used to distinguish toy guns from real guns.
This means that criminals are not breaking federal law if they paint their gun with an orange stripe or entirely orange to make it look like a toy. Yet it is illegal to do this in some states because they don’t want criminals to make real guns look like toys. For example, California can fine you simply for changing the gun’s color to entirely orange or bright green. Under California’s penal code it would be a crime for anyone who buys, sells, makes or custom paints the gun a mix of colors that makes it easily mistaken for a toy. New York has similar rules in place.
What are the rules if you paint your own gun?
Since toy guns are supposed to be orange or a neon green, it could be seen as a violation of California state law to paint the gun these colors. If you’re in another state, similar laws may apply. But painting the gun an unusual color that isn’t the same color scheme as used with toys is not a problem. For example, painting your rifle red, white and blue or gold isn’t going to cause problems. That is because no one is going to mistake it for a water gun.
Why is it illegal in some states to paint your gun these colors?
The goal of these laws is to prevent people from modifying the gun so that it is harder for police and others from knowing if the person is holding a functional gun. That is separate from laws against changing the length of the barrel or the firearm or making other functional modifications. A classic example is that it is illegal to create a sawed-off shotgun.
On the other hand, you’re rarely going to get into trouble for decorative changes to the pistol grip, since these don’t make the gun look like a toy. For example, replacing the gun metal gray grip with a bright silver or pearly white hand grip won’t run afoul of state or federal law.
You can get in trouble if you add an illegal bump stock and try to hide that fact by painting the gun in a way that makes it less obvious.
What are some of the rules of thumb for custom painting your gun?
Even if it isn’t illegal to custom paint your gun white or silver, it isn’t wise. Most people want guns that won’t attract attention. After all, it is hard to sneak up on a home intruder if your gun literally stands out. And this is why most custom paint jobs are for camouflage. Whether that’s green, brown and black or making blue gunmetal black depends on you. If you’re working in security, you might have the gun painted the color of your jersey so that it is less obvious to someone who may be scared by the sight of it.
It isn’t unheard of for someone in active shooting competitions to paint their gun in their team colors. The goal in this case is for the gun to be seen and be recognized as theirs.
Are there any issues if you custom paint patterns or symbols on the gun?
No one cares if you paint an Iron Man color scheme or My Little Pony on the gun. You might run into trouble if you are violating copyright law. For example, Disney is infamous for going after people who paint a mural that merely looks like Mickey Mouse. Custom paint a gun with Disney characters on it, and they may come after you.
On the other hand, someone did come up with a Hello Kitty rifle in 2008. It wasn’t sold by the manufacturer. It was modded by a man who wanted to make a new AR-15 for his wife. It had a picture of Hello Kitty on it as well as cartoon flowers. That seems to have been a one off, but you’re almost always allowed to custom paint your gun. For example, custom gun painting that gives it the colors of your alma matter aren’t a problem. Just don’t make it look like you’re a representative of the school’s shooting team.
Theoretically, it isn’t illegal to paint gang symbols or hate symbols on the gun, though this can cause problems with law enforcement if they see them. And you’ll open yourself up to criticism for having these symbols on your gun.
Can I Custom Paint My Gun?
While it is legal to paint a gun in most cases, if it even looks like a toy, you have to take additional steps to make sure it isn’t mistake for a toy. For example, a bright pink AR-15 needs to be treated like the dangerous weapon it is. You can’t let kids play with it thinking it is a prop or a joke. And if the gun is made to stand out, you’re more likely to get shot if you’re in a confrontation. Note that this is why custom gun painting is more often done to keep hunters’ guns invisible from game instead of making it stand out in a crowd.