What You Need To Know About Gun Control Laws In Canada

August 5, 2021
canadian gun control laws
Canadian Gun Control Laws

In Canada, federal laws regulate gun control. Gun control laws are governed by the Firearms Act, the Criminal Code, and additional regulations made under the Acts. The Firearms Act regulates the possession, transport, and storage of firearms, and the Criminal Code defines the main categories of firearms: restricted, prohibited, and non-restricted firearms. The categories of firearms are relevant because different Criminal Code offences that involve guns only apply to certain types of firearms, and obtaining a firearms licence is different depending on the category.

The government states that gun control laws are present in Canada to limit gun violence and ultimately enhance public safety by slowing down the circulation of firearms used in crime. Therefore, gun control laws in Canada govern how Canadians can legally and lawfully own firearms, restrict and regulate who can sell firearms, and consequences Canadians will face if they commit a criminal offence involving a firearm.

    History of firearm laws in Canada

    1892 First Criminal Code Canada

    Before 1892, Canadians were prohibited from carrying a handgun unless they had reasonable cause to fear assault against their life or property. Additionally, vendors could sell a pistol to anyone under 16 years old.

    After the first Criminal Code in 1892, an individual was only allowed to carry a pistol if they had a basic permit. However, if a person had cause to fear assault or injury, they were allowed to carry a pistol without the basic permit, known as a certificate of exception. Justices of the Peace could impose a six-month jail term to anyone carrying a handgun without cause.

    The 1982 Criminal Codenow prohibited vendors from selling pistols to anyone under 16 years old, and if the vendors sold pistols or air guns they had to keep a record of:
    - The purchaser’s name;
    - The date of the sale; and
    - Information that could identify the gun.

    1930s Gun Control Restrictions Canada

    Multiple restrictions and regulations on gun control laws in the 1930’s made it more difficult to possess or carry a handgun.

    Starting in 1932Canadians had to qualify for a handgun permit by disclosing the reasons for wanting to purchase one. Previously, Canadians only needed to be of “discretion and good character” to obtain a permit for a handgun.

    Canadians could only get a handgun permit for:
    - Protecting life or property; or
    - Intending to use a firearm at an approved shooting club.
    From 1932-1933The federal government also lowered the minimum age for having firearms from 16 years old to 12 years old, and increased the punishment for carrying a handgun outside a person’s home or place of work from three months to a maximum five-year sentence.
    In 1934Handgun registration became law when the federal government created the first real registration that was required for an individual to carry a handgun.

    The new provisions required records that identified:
    - The owner;
    - The owner’s address; and
    - The firearm.

    Police departments or the Commissioner of the RCMP kept records and issued registration.
    Up until 1938The certificates required for registered handguns were indefinite. In 1939, however, you had to re-register your handguns every five years. This was changed in 1950 when the government changed the Criminal Code to allow registration certificates to be valid indefinitely.

    1951 Royal Canadian Mounted Police Creates First Central Registry of Handguns

    Prior to 1951, the registration system for handguns was not centralized. That changed in 1951, when under the Commissioner of the RCMP, the registry system for handguns became centralized.

    Beginning in 1951Automatic firearms were added to the category of firearms. They had to have serial numbers and be registered.

    1968 Firearms Classification Canada

    In 1968The federal government created legal categories for firearms in the Criminal Code. The categories still remain in section 84 of the Criminal Code:
    - Restricted;
    - Prohibited; and
    - Non-restricted firearms.

    1977 Criminal Code Update Firearm Acquisition Update

    Firearms legislation was amended again in 1977. The following changes were made to the Criminal Code:

    In 1977- If an individual wanted to own a rifle or shotgun, a Firearm Acquisition Certificate (FAC) is required;
    - Before receiving the FAC, individuals were required to pass a basic criminal record check;
    - Fully automatic firearms are banned, unless they were registered as restricted weapons before January 1, 1978;
    - A property owner could no longer carry a restricted weapon to protect their property;
    - Some firearms, such as semi-automatic weapons with barrels less than 18 ½ inches and handguns were categorized as restricted weapons; and
    - Weapons including automatic weapons, and sawed-off shotguns and rifles were categorized as prohibited weapons.

    1991 Bill C-17 Canada

    Bill C-17 made changes to the Firearms Acquisition Certificate system, which included:

    In 1991- Requiring applicants to provide two references and a photograph of themselves;
    - A mandatory 28-day waiting period for an FAC;
    - Requiring mandatory safety training for applicants;
    - Expanding the FAC application process to obtain more background information on the applicant; and
    - More detailed screening of applicants.

    Additional major changes included:
    - Increased penalties for firearm-related crimes;
    - New offences in the Criminal Code involving firearms;
    - New definitions for prohibited and restricted weapons;
    - New regulations for vendors who sold firearms;
    - Clearly defined regulations for the safe storage, handling and transportation of firearms; and
    - A new requirement that a parliamentary committee review the firearm regulations before being made by the Governor-in-Council.
    Starting in 1994FAC applicants had to show knowledge of the safe handling of firearms. To show knowledge, the applicant had to either:
    - Pass the test for a firearms safety course approved by a provincial Attorney General; or
    - Have a firearms officer certify that the individual can safely handle firearms.

    1995 Firearms Act Canada

    The Firearms Act was enacted in 1995, along with amendments to the Criminal Code. Changes included:

    In 1995- Amendments to the Criminal Code provided harsher penalties for certain serious crimes when a firearm was involved, for example murder and kidnapping;
    - Implementation of a new licensing system replaced the FAC system;
    - In order to possess and acquire firearms and buy ammunition, the individual had to have a license; and
    - All restricted and prohibited firearms must be registered, including shotguns and rifles.

    2012 Bill C-19 Canada

    Bill C-19 abolished the long-gun registry. This meant that rifles and shotguns, which are considered non-restricted firearms, do not have to be registered unless you live in Quebec, and approximately six million records of firearm ownership were destroyed. It is still illegal to possess them without a possession and acquisition licence.

    Additionally, the bill amended the Firearms Act and the Criminal Code to:

    In 2012- Remove the requirement to register firearms that are neither prohibited nor restricted;
    - Destroy existing registration records held in the Canadian Firearms Registry that was under the control of chief firearms officers; and
    - Allow the transferor of a non-restricted firearm to confirm the validity of a transferee’s firearms acquisition license before finalizing the transfer

    Most handguns that are not classified as prohibited are considered restricted and therefore must be registered. If automatic rifles and handguns have been modified, they are considered prohibited firearms.

    2015 Bill C-42 Canada

    Bill C-42 was called the Common Sense Firearms Licensing Act. The following provisions came into force:

    In 2015- First-time individuals applying for a firearms license were required to enroll in and complete firearms safety courses;
    - If an individual was convicted of a domestic violence offence, the Criminal Code made stronger provisions prohibiting the offender from possessing firearms;
    - The Governor in Council had the authority to specify firearms be non-restricted or restricted;
    - Possession and Acquisition Licenses replaced the Possession Only Licence scheme; and
    - For certain routine and lawful transportation activities with firearms, the Authorization to Transport became a condition of a licence.

    2018 Bill C-71 Canada

    Bill C-71 reinstated the 1977 provisions that require firearm vendors to keep records of gun sales and make them available to law enforcement. The new system flags large and unusual transactions made by individuals who have a legal possession and acquisition licence (PAL). The government believed this would allow law enforcement to detect “straw purchasing” schemes, which is where one person who could legally purchase firearms would buy firearms for an individual(s) that were banned from purchasing guns. Under the new law, vendors were responsible for owning and maintaining records of individuals who purchased firearms. Law enforcement could only access the records if they obtained a warrant.

    Another major change under Bill C-71 is the requirement of a lifetime background check for Canadians applying for a firearms licence. Before this legislation was enacted, applicants were only subject to a five-year background check.

    2020 Federal Firearms Ban

    On May 1, 2020, the federal government banned more that 1,500 models and variants of “assault-style” weapons. Although the term “assault-style” is not defined in Canadian law, all models of semi-automatic guns were immediately prohibited. A two-year amnesty is in effect until April 30, 2022, and applies to Canadians who currently own assault-style weapons to dispose, export, register, or sell them under a buy-back program.

    The government expects 105,000 firearms that were classified as restricted firearms are now classified as prohibited after the federal ban. Therefore, they expect a firearm buyback program to cost roughly up to $225 million. However, the parliamentary budget officer recently estimated there are 518,000 guns in the country, which would cost $756 million to purchase.

    The federal ban on semi-automatic weapons came after 22 people were shot in Nova Scotia in 2020. The government states the ban will help ensure Canadians and communities “no longer suffer from gun violence” by removing the assault style weapons that are designed for the military. The ban is enacted through regulations approved by an order-in-council and not from legislation, such as the Criminal Code.

    2021 Bill C-21 Canada

    Bill C-21 was introduced by the federal government in February, 2021. The bill aims to amend both the Criminal Code and the Firearms Act and proposes a buyback of the assault-style weapons introduced on May 1, 2020. The bill would also increase penalties for individuals found guilty of illegally smuggling and trafficking firearms, give municipalities the right to ban handguns through bylaws, and create provisions for individuals to obtain a court order to have firearms temporarily removed to help ensure safety of the individual or third parties.

    The bill hasn’t made it past the second reading yet because the House of Commons took a summer recess.

    Firearms Regulation in Canada

    Firearms regulation in Canada is largely about firearm licences and registration of guns. A firearms licence allows the individual to buy, own, possess, or carry a firearm, which are subject to restrictions and conditions.

    After the 1977 Criminal Law Amendment Act, the overall homicide rate in Canada did not significantly decrease. However, a federal report in 2010 highlighted the following:

    • Following a decade of relative stability, homicides decreased substantially in 2010. There were 554 police- reported homicides in 2010, 56 fewer than the year before. The 2010 homicide rate dropped to 1.62 per 100,000 population, its lowest level since 1966. With 35 fewer homicides in 2010 than in 2009, the rate of homicide in British Columbia (1.83) fell 31%. The decrease resulted in the lowest homicide rate in this province since the mid-1960s.
    • Despite declines, homicide rates were generally higher in western Canada, led by Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The exception to this trend was in Nova Scotia where the rate rose 39% to its highest level since 1998 and the third highest rate among the provinces.
    • For the second year in a row, Thunder Bay recorded the highest homicide rate among Canada’s census metropolitan areas (CMAs), followed by Saskatoon and Regina. Substantial declines in homicide rates occurred in several of Canada’s largest CMAs in 2010, most notably in Vancouver where the 42% decline resulted in this city’s lowest rate since data for CMAs became available in 1981.
    • The number of firearm-related homicides decreased in 2010 from 180 to 170. Despite some fluctuation, the rate of firearm homicides has generally been on the decline over the past three decades.
    • In 2010, 94 homicides reported by police were considered to be gang-related, representing 17% of all homicides reported to police. This was down from the record high in 2008 when 138 homicides were reported by police as gang-related. Until 2008, rates of gang-related homicides had generally been increasing over the previous two decades.
    • As in previous years, victims of homicide were most likely to have been killed by someone they knew. Declines in homicide between 2009 and 2010 were reported across all major accused-victim relationship categories. Rates of homicide committed by acquaintances and family members saw decreases of 7% and 9% respectively. Rates fell even further for homicides committed by strangers (-14%) and criminal acquaintances (-21%).
    • Following three decades of general decline, the rate of intimate partner homicide has been relatively stable in recent years. In 2010, there were 89 victims of homicide by an intimate partner, one above the number recorded in 2009.
    • Between 2000 and 2010, 621 persons accused of homicide were suspected of having a mental or developmental disorder, representing 13% of persons accused over this period. Approximately one-third of accused with a suspected mental or developmental disorder had been previously convicted of a violent offence.

    The government also released a PDF outlining the facts on firearm-related violence crime from 2009-2017.

    Legal vs Illegal Guns

    In order to purchase or possess a firearm in Canada you need a license. To obtain a license you need to complete the Canada Firearms Safety Course (CFSC). Once an individual passes the CFSC, they can apply for a Possession and Acquisition Licence (PAL) by submitting an application and undergoing a background check. The license must be renewed every five years.

    Illegal firearm possession in Canada exposes Canadians to a prison sentence, so it is important to know what firearms are considered legal. The different categories of firearms, prohibited, non-restricted, and restricted, have specific requirements for obtaining a licence that are not available to everyone.

    Were you charged with a firearm violation? Contact Pyzer Criminal Lawyers first.

    Classifying Firearms in Canada

    Section 2 of the Criminal Code defines what is considered a firearm under Canadian law:

    • a barrelled weapon;
    • from which any shot, bullet, or other projectile can be discharged; and
    • that is capable of causing serious bodily injury or death to a person.

    That includes “any frame or receiver of such a barrelled weapon and anything that can be adapted for use as a firearm.”

    In Canada, firearms are categorized into three legal classes:

    • Prohibited Firearms
    • Restricted Firearms
    • Non-Restricted Firearms

    In order for certain firearm related criminal offences to take place, the Crown has to prove what legal category the firearm is a part of. For example, part of section 95(1) of the Criminal Code makes it an offence to possess a loaded prohibited firearm or a loaded restricted firearm. Therefore, the Crown has to prove the firearm associated with the crime falls under the prohibited or restricted category. If the firearm was a non-restricted firearm, the offence under section 95(1) does not apply.

    Under several serious Criminal Code offences, the moment one is committed with a firearm subjects the accused to a longer prison sentence. For example, the following offences come with a mandatory five-year minimum sentence if a prohibited or restricted firearm is used in the commission of the offence:

    Prohibited Firearms

    When classifying prohibited firearms, the government wanted to restrict small guns that could easily be concealed. Included in the class of prohibited firearms are:

    • Handguns with barrels equal to or less than 105 mm in length
    • Handguns designed or adapted to discharge a 25 or 32 calibre cartridge
      • This does not include handguns for use in international sporting competitions governed by the rules of the International Shooting Union and where the handgun is prescribed to be restricted
    • Firearms adapted from a rifle or shotgun, whether by sawing, cutting or any other alteration, and that, as so adapted are:
      • less than 660 mm in length
      • 660 mm or greater in length and has a barrel less than 457 mm in length
    • Automatic firearms, whether or not altered to discharge only one projectile with one pressure of the trigger
    • Firearms prescribed to be prohibited firearms in the Regulations

    The only way to legally possess a prohibited firearm in Canada is if it was grandfathered onto you, under section 12 of the Firearms Act.

    An individual is exempt from the grandfathered requirement if all of the following apply:

    • The handgun was made before 1946;
    • The handgun is currently registered in Canada (under section 12(6.1) of the Firearms Act); and
    • You are the child, grandchild, brother, sister, or spouse/common-law partner of the lawful owner.

    Restriction Firearms

    Any handgun that is not prohibited is automatically considered restricted. In Canada, there is no such thing as a non-restricted handgun.

    Restricted firearms is a firearm that:

    • Are not prohibited firearms;
    • Have a barrel less than 470mm in length; and
    • Are capable of discharging centre-fire ammunition in a semi-automatic manner.

    An individual may be licensed to acquire or possess a restricted firearm for the following purposes:

    • Target practice or target shooting competitions;
    • As part of a collection; or
    • In limited circumstances, use in connection with one’s lawful profession or occupation, or to protect life.

    To possess and use a restricted firearm for only the above purposes, individuals need to partake in a two day Canada Firearms Safety Course and pass a written test before applying for a PAL.

    Non-restricted Firearms

    There is no legal definition of a non-restricted firearm in the Criminal Code. Basically, all firearms that meet the section 2 definition but do not fall into the prohibited or restricted category will be considered non-restricted. Generally, these include hunting rifles, shotguns, and long guns. An individual must still pass the Canada Firearms Safety Course, the written test, and have a Possession and Acquisition Licence (PAL) to legally possess them. For non-restricted firearms, the CFSC is a one day course available to anyone. Licences for minors are available for individuals between 12 and 17 to borrow and use non-restricted firearms.

    Licensing of Firearms in Canada

    How to obtain a firearms possession licence

    The government places the RCMP under the authority of firearm registration. A firearms licence, the PAL, is required for an individual to use and possess firearms. This includes non-restricted firearms. The licence indicates what category of firearm the individual can own and transport, including ammunition. The applicant must first pass the Canadian Firearms Safety Course before applying for a PAL.

    Jenessa May
    Written By:
    Jenessa May
    Summer Student and JD Candidate
    Jenessa is completing her Juris Doctor degree at the University of Ottawa where she will graduate in 2022. Originally from Kelowna, she completed her undergraduate degree at the University of British Columbia Okanagan with a major in psychology and a minor in sociology.
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