Gun control in Canada is governed by the Criminal Code, as well as the Firearms Act (1995) and related regulations. The Criminal Code lays out the criminal offences related to the misuse, storage, transportation, sale and possession of firearms; as well as consequent punishments. The Firearms Act regulates the manufacture, import/export, acquisition, possession, transfer, transportation, and storage of firearms in Canada. It lays out prohibitions and restrictions on various types of firearms, which are classified as either non-restricted, restricted, or prohibited. The Act also outlines the requirements for the licensing and registration of firearms in Canada. The Canadian Firearms Program (CFP), led by the RCMP, administers the Firearms Act. Fulfilment of the Canadian Firearms Safety Course and obtainment of a Possession and Acquisition Licence (PAL) are required to possess and use firearms in Canada.
Historical Background: Gun Control Legislation in Canada
The first Criminal Code includes penalties for carrying a pistol without a permit.
Various restrictions make it more difficult to possess or carry a handgun; they also increase penalties for using handguns while committing a crime.
The RCMP create the country’s first central registry of handguns.
The system for classifying all firearms in one of three categories — non-restricted, restricted, and prohibited — is created.
Changes are made to the Criminal Code. A Firearm Acquisition Certificate is required for rifles and shotguns; mandatory record-keeping by arms dealers and inspection are introduced; and a ban on fully automatic firearms is enacted.
Bill C-17 strengthens the process for obtaining a Firearm Acquisition Certificate.
The Firearms Act is adopted. Its stipulations include mandatory registration of all firearms and licensing for firearm owners; a national registry for all weapons; background checks; and verification processes and controls on ammunition sales.
Bill C-19 eliminates the registration of unrestricted firearms and erases the data from the registry.
Bill C-42 relaxes controls on restricted and prohibited weapons.
Bill C-71 reinstates the provisions from 1977 by requiring dealers to keep records and make them available to police. Screening provisions are also strengthened. The Act comes into force in 2019.
The government implements a handgun sales freeze through regulation changes starting on 21 October 2022. The importation, purchase and transfer of handguns by most individuals are no longer allowed.
Governance of Gun Control in Canada
Gun control laws are a federal jurisdiction, as they fall within the federal area of criminal law. ( See also Distribution of Powers.) Nonetheless, provinces have some power in this area. For example, Quebec fought the federal government in court over data from the former gun registry, which was abolished in 2012. In 2018, the province created its own gun registry, Bill 64, for non-restricted firearms. The provinces also have jurisdiction over the rules governing hunting.
Efforts to challenge the federal jurisdiction over gun control in Canada have failed. In 1996, Alberta, along with other provinces and groups, challenged the constitutionality of the Possession and Acquisition License (PAL) before the Supreme Court. In 2000, the Court unanimously rejected the challenge, upholding the federal gun control law. The Court has also asserted that the Firearms Act does not infringe on provincial powers.
DID YOU KNOW?
The Supreme Court of Canada has noted on several occasions that, unlike in the United States, there is no “right to bear arms” in Canada. Relevant court cases include R. v. Hasselwander (1993); R. v. Wiles (2005); and Hudson v. Canada (2009).
In Canada, there are three classes of firearms: non-restricted; restricted; and prohibited. The three classes are defined by the Firearms Act. The RCMP administers the classification of restricted and prohibited firearms.
The non-restricted class includes any rifle or shotgun that is neither restricted nor prohibited. Restricted firearms include some handguns and some semi-automatic centerfire firearms. Firearms in this class are often used in target practice or shooting sports; they can also be sought as collectibles or required for a profession. Prohibited firearms include fully automatic firearms; some semi-automatic firearms not reasonably used for hunting; and most types of handguns, listed in the Criminal Code or classified as such by the RCMP. Handguns are either restricted or prohibited; there is no such thing as a non-restricted handgun in Canada.
The ownership of handguns and rifles in Canada increased from just under 980,000 in 2015 to over 1.24 million in 2019. During this same time frame, the number of PAL licenses increased from 2.03 million to 2.22 million.
Criminal Code and Firearms Act
Gun control in Canada is governed mainly by Part III of the Criminal Code, as well as the Firearms Act (1995) and related regulations. The Criminal Code lays out the criminal offences related to firearm misuse, storage, transportation, sale and possession of the three different classes of firearms; as well as consequent punishments. The Firearms Act regulates the manufacture, import/export, acquisition, possession, transfer, transportation, and storage of firearms in Canada. It lays out prohibitions and restrictions on various types of firearms. It also outlines the requirements for licensing and registering firearms in Canada.
The Canadian Firearms Program (CFP) administers the Firearms Act. The CFP is led by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). It has partnerships across federal government departments; local law enforcement agencies in Canada and the United States; the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF); and INTERPOL, the International Criminal Police Organization. The CFP’s goals are to protect the public from risk of harm due to firearm misuse. Measures include screening gun owners for eligibility; promoting safe “ownership storage and use of firearms” via public education and awareness programs; and providing services to prevent and investigate gun-related crime. The CFP is also responsible for licensing and registering restricted and prohibited firearms through the Registrar of Firearms.
Registration of non-restricted firearms was introduced in 1995 but repealed in 2012. Following the passage in 2012 of Bill C-19 — the Ending the Long Gun Registry Act — records on the ownership of 6 million firearms were destroyed. Quebec challenged the federal law in the courts. Quebec lost, but the province passed a law that came into effect in 2018; it requires the registration of non-restricted firearms.
Bill C-71, An Act to amend certain Acts and Regulations in relation to firearms, received royal assent on 21 June 2019. It reinstated the provisions from 1977 requiring dealers to keep records. It also made these records available to police for inspection.
In 2020, through an order-in-council, the federal government banned 11 types of firearms covering more than 1,500 models and variants of semi-automatic rifles. These include the Ruger Mini-14, which was used in the Montreal Massacre on 6 December 1989, and the AR-15, one of the weapons used during a rampage in rural Nova Scotia in which 22 people were killed on 18–19 April 2020.
In February 2021, the government introduced Bill C-21, An Act to amend certain Acts and to make certain consequential amendments (firearms). It would set up a voluntary buy-back program for firearms that were banned by the May 2020 order-in-council. The law would also increase penalties for illegal smuggling and trafficking of firearms; give municipalities the right to ban handguns with bylaws; and create provisions for people to get a court order to have firearms temporarily removed to help ensure the safety of that person or of a third party. However, federal elections took place in September 2021 before the bill could be passed.
On 30 May 2022, the federal government introduced a revised version of Bill C-21 to restrict the sale and transfer of handguns throughout Canada. While awaiting for the bill to pass through Parliament, the government modified regulations to implement a freeze on the sale and transfer of handguns starting on 21 October 2022.
Requirements for Gun Ownership in Canada
A firearms licence — called a Possession and Acquisition Licence (PAL) — is required to possess and use firearms, including those classified as non-restricted. The licence indicates which class of firearms and ammunition a person can own and transport. The licence must be renewed every five years. Before applying for a PAL, first-time applicants must pass the Canadian Firearms Safety Course.
Individuals who want to acquire restricted firearms must also take the Canadian Restricted Firearms Safety Course. There are only a few permitted purposes for which individuals may be licensed to acquire or possess a restricted firearm: target shooting competitions; as part of a collection; use in connection with one’s lawful profession or occupation; or to protect life. A registration certificate, which identifies a firearm and associates it to its owner, is needed for both restricted and prohibited firearms; it is not necessary for non-restricted firearms.
An individual is ineligible to hold a licence if their possession of a firearm poses a risk to themselves or others. The process of screening for licences is variable but allows for reference checks and spousal notification. Factors that may provide the basis for denying a firearms licence include: convictions for violent offences; stalking; certain drug offences; treatment for mental illness associated with violence; or a history of violent behavior, among others.
There are additional levels of controls for restricted and prohibited firearms. A restricted weapons permit requires that the applicants fulfil specific criteria (e.g., they need restricted firearms for their employment; they are members in good standing of a gun club; they are a bona fide collector; or, in a very small number of cases, they require firearms because their lives are in danger and police cannot protect them). Moving restricted firearms from one location to another requires an Authorization to Transport (ATT). It is issued by the provincial or territorial Chief Firearms Officer.
Prohibition Orders and Search and Seizure Provisions
Under the Criminal Code, the courts may prohibit someone from possessing firearms and other weapons. Prohibition orders are of varying terms and conditions. They are mandatory upon conviction for certain serious offences; such as violent offences, stalking, or drug trafficking. Prohibition orders can also be applied with discretion; they can be applied upon conviction for less serious violent offences or offences involving firearms use.
Officials are given search and seizure powers. The Criminal Code authorizes peace officers to search for and seize firearms under warrant. The Firearms Act also permits warrantless search and seizure in certain cases, where a peace officer has reasonable grounds. In the case of any seizure, the person has 14 days to produce proof of licensing and/or registration to retrieve the items.
Advocacy in Canada
There are many organizations that advocate either for or against gun control laws in Canada. The Montreal Massacre on 6 December 1989, when 14 young women at the École Polytechnique in Montreal were killed by a legal gun owner, was the catalyst for the founding of the Coalition for Gun Control and the Quebec-based PolySeSouvient, both of which still exist today. Doctors for Protection from Guns was founded after the Danforth shooting in Toronto in 2018. All these groups support more restrictions on assault-style weapons and handguns.
On the other side of the issue, provincial associations and umbrella groups such as the Canadian Wildlife Federation, as well as hunting organizations and sports shooting organizations, have advocated for the use of lawful firearms in Canada and the protection of the rights of gun owners. Firearm dealers groups, such as the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Association, have been active since 1973. Canada’s National Firearms Association was established in 1984, while the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights was established in 2015.
Pro-gun lobbyists in Canada have opposed firearms prohibitions, which ban or restrict the use or possession of certain weapons, including the national ban on semi-automatic and high-powered rifles in 2020. They argue that such prohibitions violate Section 8 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which prohibits the unlawful seizure of private property.
See also Quebec City Mosque Shooting; Parliament Hill Attack; Ludwig Farm Shooting; Taber Shootings; Moncton Police Killings; The École Polytechnique Tragedy: Beyond the Duty of Remembrance; Lépine Massacre Ten Years After.