Firearms. Guns. The words by themselves are laden with baggage and narratives, and they have played a part in election campaigns and Canadian politics in a serious role since 1991. The topic remains a hot button one throughout the entire spectrum of political landscape of Canada. The big problem is that very few people in Canada outside of the firearms community actually know much about firearms laws and the procedures and limitations they entail. It’s similar to how citizens may be unfamiliar with family law or corporate law; if you don’t interact with it, odds are, you’re not going to spend hours learning about it. So, with that in mind, this post should shed some light on things.
Firearms law in Canada is old, and like most firearms laws in North America, are rooted in racism and colonial practice. The first of what we would recognize as a modern firearm law came into effect in 1885, which restricted ownership of anything other than a smoothbore shotgun to permit holders in what is now Alberta to Manitoba, and the territories. The reason was to hamper potential future rebellions by the Metis and First Nations. Then in 1934, registration became necessary for pistol ownership, to keep them out of the hands of “undesirables”. From there, in 1968, Bill C-150 created the categories of firearms we still have today in Canada: non-restricted, restricted, and prohibited. In 1977, the precursors the modern PAL (possession/acquisition licence) were legislated into being with Bill C-51, requiring all firearms purchasers to have a FAC (firearms acquisition certificate). This also introduced basic criminal background checks for FAC holders, and ammunition purchasing controls. The watershed moment in Canadian firearms law came in 1991 and 1995, after the events of the École Polytechnique Massacre in 1989, where deranged anti-feminist Marc Lépine murdered 28 people with a semiautomatic hunting rifle. Bill C-17 redefined the descriptions of the previously created categories of firearms, set standards for storage, and set the current limitations on magazine capacity in firearms in civilian hands. The Firearms Act in 1995, Bill C-68, was the greatest effort at firearms control in Canada, and arguably the most controversial.
The Firearms Act, and its precursor, Bill C-17, are the cause of much controversy in Canada. The reasons are many and varied. Not the least of which were that the bills were badly worded and designed, leaving a lot of ambiguities and points open to individual interpretation. The methods used to determine what firearms would go onto the prohibited and restricted firearms lists were less than scientific and inconsistently applied. More over, the entire process was opaque, and in the hands of an unelected, and largely unaccountable body, the RCMP. Worse still, the reasoning behind the laws were based in ideology, not rational study. The first major challenge to the system established came with the end of the Long Gun Registry, in 2009. It failed at the time in its third reading, but came back, revamped, in Bill C-19 in 2012. This bill passed, despite massive efforts by the Liberal, NDP, and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP). Quebec retained its registry though, after a brief legal conflict.
More recently, the passing of Bill C-42, “The Commonsense Firearms Licensing Act”, had serious political fur flying. The bill itself was a “gimme” for the firearms owning citizens of Canada, that fell well short of what some had been lobbying for. For the political left, it was viewed as nothing less than the creation of a wild west scenario of free flowing firearms and untracked movements. In reality, it was a very prosaic bill that streamlined some paperwork related issues, gave the RCMP and police some better ability to deal with removing firearms from abusive spouses, and clarified a few points. However, it was this bill that set the stage for the 2015 elections conflict over firearms.
So, now that the history is out of the way, what are the realities of owning and using firearms in Canada?
- To purchase a firearm or ammunition, you must have a valid PAL. PALs are only issued for non-restricted and restricted firearms. Prohibited PALs are only held by firearms owners who owned prohibited firearms prior to 1995, and cannot be transferred.
- Getting a PAL entails attending a short course on firearms handling and safety, passing both written and physical handling tests for the classifications of firearms you wish to purchase and own, and an additional safe handling course for first time applicants. After that, you have to get two character witnesses to sign off on your forms, and then pass a criminal, mental health, domestic abuse, and substance abuse/addiction series of background checks. In the mean time, you cannot purchase or own firearms.
- Once you receive a PAL, you may purchase and own firearms from the categories you have licence for, and purchase ammunition. To purchase a firearm or ammunition, you must show a valid PAL. This is NOT optional.
- Purchase of non-restricted firearms is an in-and-out affair. You show your licence, the firearms shop checks it online, and if its good, you walk out with your new rifle or shotgun.
- Purchasing a restricted firearm is best done in the morning, as it requires the same check, but also a registration of said firearm to the purchaser, which may take several hours.
- Firearms transportation and storage rules are very clearly laid out on the RCMP website, and must be adhered to. The RCMP and metropolitan police forces have the power to enter the premises of any firearms owner and ensure that all firearms are properly stored.
- Restricted firearms can ONLY be transported to a limited number of places, in a reasonably direct route, with as few stops as possible, locked inside cases with trigger locks attached. Bill C-42 did not change this, it only attached a licence to transport to the PAL, as opposed to the old system that required a separate form.
- PALs are checked against databases as a daily, routine function, to ensure that the holder has not committed a crime that prohibits them from possessing or using firearms. They are essentially a rolling background check.
- Non-restricted firearms my be used in a variety of locations (ranges, crown land etc…), but restricted and prohibited firearms may only be used on officially sanctioned shooting ranges.
For those who prefer numbers, roughly one in eighteen Canadians have a PAL (1 in 17.67), and there are roughly three legal firearms for every ten Canadian citizens (30.2 for every 100 Canadians). Canada has the 13th highest per capita firearms ownership rate in the world, but 35th in the world for homicides by firearm (probably lower, as many nations have ineffective reporting apparatuses). The overwhelming majority of firearms crimes in Canada are committed with unregistered, undocumented and illegal firearms, which are smuggled into Canada from the USA. Non-firearms related violent crime rates in Canada are 49% higher than the rates of violent crime involving firearms. There is no good data on the type so firearms used in Canadian crimes, as most are not recovered by police, as a result the data has some serious bias issues.
With so many firearms in circulation, why does Canada not have a serious firearms related rate of deaths or injuries? Well, this comes down to several factors. One is that our current system of licensing is very effective at keeping firearms out of the hands of both the criminal element and those who may be a danger to others. It’s not perfect, but it is effective. Another is that firearms culture in Canada is not the same as the one in the USA. This is a major point, as many assume that is it is based on exposure to American popular and news media. Firearms in Canada have never been strongly equated with self defence, authority (particularly the threat of violence to maintain authority), as a way of settling disputes, or as national symbols. They’re regarded, largely, as tools for hunting and sports. As the years have gone by, hunting has lost its appeal to the largely urban population of Canada, and sports shooting, whether it be tactical, long range, speed, or trap, has moved into the gap. Combined with mandated safe handling and storage rules, it makes for a very safe environment. Additionally, criminal usage of firearms by PAL owners remains so low that it’s nearly a statistical outlier.
Criminal use of firearms is, of course, what firearms legislation seeks to deal with. And to a degree it does. Restricting access to firearms and ammunition works well to keep them out of the hands of the criminal element. Potential crimes of passion are also dealt with, as spouses, roommates, and friends have the ability to contact the RCMP or police if they suspect that something may be about to happen. One of the specific parts of Bill C-42 was to give the RCMP and police more power to intervene and remove firearms from abusive spouses. The problem though is that restriction of access only addresses one small part of the firearms crime dilemma. Poverty, education, and mental health are the aspects alluded to by the RCMP in their report on the efficacy of the Long Gun Registry (TL;DR: PALs work great, the registry failed to help solve or prevent any crimes in its entire existence) as areas that need closer attention.
I imagine now, some readers are nodding and thinking, “Here it comes, the argument that firearms legislation is unnecessary and everyone should be packing heat.” Well, its not coming. While I am a firearms owner and competitive shooter when I have the time and funds, I think that our system is okay-ish. It needs a lot of work though. The language needs clarity. The classification of firearms needs to be set to a transparent and universal standard, meaning the restricted and prohibited lists need to be altered. Loopholes need to be closed, and reasonable concessions granted for things like magazine capacity (which is currently being worked around a number of legal ways with no criminal applications as of the time this was written). And we absolutely need to keep the licence system, it’s proven to work. We also need to get onboard with better programmes to deal with poverty and mental health issues, and in dealing with the traffic of illegal firearms from the USA, all of which feed criminal use of firearms.
I hope this helps put into light some of the basic realities around legal firearms ownership in Canada. It’s worth pointing out that none of the things discussed here are optional in so far as firearms ownership and use in Canada go. Given the repercussions of breaking the law in this area, very, very few Canadian firearms owners risk the personal cost and/or jail time. So, when you wonder about firearms and Canada, don’t fall for the ideologically driven hype. Go with facts.