Firearms in Canada

This may sound surprising, but Canada is one of the top countries worldwide for gun ownership. We have about 2.1 million gun owners (source). Worldwide, we rank fifth by rate of civilian ownership (source). No wonder, since firearms are an exciting hobby, but also a magnet for controversy.

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Starting out
Getting Licensed
Getting licensed in Canada is straightforward, as long as you can meet the following conditions (source):

  • Be a resident or Canadian Citizen
  • Passed the Canadian Firearms Safety Course (find an instructor)
  • Passed the Canadian Restricted Firearms Safety Course, if wishing to buy restricted firearms such as handguns
  • Have a clean background and provide personal references
    • Those who lived in Canada less than five years must also provide a police reference from their country of origin

That’s about it. With a tiny bit of patience and effort, and a clean past, you will have Possession and Acquisition License (PAL) for non-restricted firearms, or a Restricted PAL (RPAL) for both non-restricted and restricted firearms.

Licenses must be renewed every five years. All (R)PAL holders are automatically police-checked every night for Continuous Eligibility Screening.

Non-Restricted, Restricted, and Prohibited Firearms
Firearms are classified in the Criminal Code (source). They are divided into three classes:
Any long gun that isn’t specifically restricted or prohibited. Most long guns in Canada are non-restricted.

  • Can be used for hunting and target shooting
  • Must be unloaded otherwise
  • Single-locked for safe storage
  • No registration
  • Cannot be sold to a person without a PAL

Most handguns, and “short” long guns are restricted. The AR-15 is restricted regardless of length.

  • Can be used for target shooting, but not hunting
  • Must be unloaded otherwise
  • Must be transported directly to/from home and an approved location, such as a shooting range
  • Double-locked for safe storage and transport
  • Mandatory registration
  • Cannot be sold to a person without an RPAL
  • Sales and transfers are monitored and approved by the Chief Firearms Office

Short-barrel handguns and .25 and .32 caliber handguns are prohibited. Full-automatic guns, guns that were converted from full-automatic, and guns declared to be such, regardless of function, are also prohibited.

  • Only prohibited handguns can currently be transported for target shooting
  • Restricted storage, and registration rules apply
  • Possession and transfers allowed only among those who held a particular class before being prohibited (grandfathering)
  • None can legally be imported into Canada, unless for government use (police, army etc)

Guns that have been “sawn-off” by the owner are outright illegal.

Regardless of classification, most semi-automatic long guns have a five-round magazine limit, and most semi-automatic handguns have a ten-round magazine limit.

Naturally, the complete laws and regulations are a bit more complex and involve special cases, but the above rules cover most situations.

Legal and illegal handguns
Possession, transport, and carry
In Canada, handguns are classified as restricted or prohibited (e.g. short-barrel handguns). Handgun possession, transport, and carry laws are outlined in the criminal code (source). Summarized, they are:

  • Any possession of a handgun is illegal without a valid RPAL license
  • Handguns must be registered to the owner
  • Any carry of a handgun is illegal without an Authorization To Carry (almost never issued)
  • Any transport must be direct (no unnecessary detours or stopovers), and only between approved destinations, such as the residence and shooting range (source)
    • Handguns must be transported unloaded and double-locked

It can be safely concluded that a criminal who carries a handgun is breaking at least one of the above rules. In fact, news reports of an arrested criminal will often list charges such as “Unauthorized possession of a restricted firearm”, “Possession of an unregistered restricted firearm”, and “Unauthorized carry of a restricted firearm”.

Bottom line, unlicensed people are already banned from having a handgun in Canada.

Domestic sources myth
An often-repeated statement is that “50% of crime guns come from domestic sources”, often with an imposing photo of seized handguns. However, the truth does not quite match the headline. The most generous percentage that can be attributed to domestically sourced guns is 33%. Domestically sourced crime handguns are only 23% of all crime handguns, and only 8% of all crime guns. The 50% figure refers to the guns that were successfully traced (only 29% of traces were successful).
2014 RCMP FIESD Western Region report
One source of detailed data available to the public is in the 2014 RCMP FIESD Western Region report (source). It states the following:

  • Total seized crime guns: 1140
  • Total seized crime handguns: 378
  • Confirmed domestically-sourced crime guns, including long guns: 377 (33% of total)
  • Domestically sourced crime handguns: 88 (8% of all crime guns, 23% of crime handguns)
  • Smuggled crime handguns: 210 (55% of crime handguns)
  • Unknown origin crime handguns: 80 (21% of crime handguns)

as of August 1st, 2018.

2007 to 2017 Toronto Police Crime Guns
Another source of data is the released stats on crime guns by the Toronto Police (source source).
The following numbers are presented for the year 2017:

  • Total seized crime guns: 726
  • Domestically sourced crime guns: 148

That’s 20%. Note that crime guns include airguns, replicas and other non-firearm imitations. Similar ratios exist in other years.

as of September 7th, 2018.

Would banning handguns reduce crime?
Licensing and registration of handguns already ensures a ban on any criminal use, as described above. Publically available information also shows that legally bought handguns are a measly 8% of all crime guns. When so many more guns are smuggled (example, example) or even manufactured in underground factories (example), it is plain that most criminal handguns in Canada are illegal from the very beginning, and will be unaffected by a total ban.

In short, no, a total ban on handguns would make little effect on the supply of illegal guns in Canada.

Public Safety and Firearms

It’s very wrong to assume that gun owners do not care about public safety. We care very much, because we benefit the most from responsible ownership. All Canadians want to save lives, but sometimes we disagree on the best way to do it. Practical experience with guns and gun regulations is a critical contribution to the debate.

Why not regulate guns like cars?
You may have heard a statement to the effect of “We license drivers and register cars, why not license gun owners and register guns?” Let’s put aside the difficulties of making a car analogy when it comes to guns and compare the two sets of regulations (source).

In Ontario, the Highway Traffic Act applies only to driving on public roads. Off-road use, and use on private property in particular, is not covered. This means that in those cases:

  • You do not need a license, registration, or insurance
  • There are no speed limits
  • You cannot violate traffic regulations
  • The vehicle does not have to be street-legal (mirrors, turn signals etc)
  • You are still liable for dangerous or criminal operation (injury, property damage)

Have you seen a car parked in a driveway without a license plate? Legal if it stays there. Have you seen a racecar or racing motorcycle moved to a racetrack on a trailer? Same thing.

Now let’s look at what how that would apply that to guns:

  • You could buy a gun without needing a license
  • The gun you bought wouldn’t need to be registered
  • You could transport the gun, unloaded and in a box, to target shoot or hunt
  • You could get a license to carry a loaded gun in public (concealed or openly)
    • After passing appropriate safety exams of course (like a driving test)
  • You would only register the gun that you would be carrying
  • In all cases, you would still be liable for dangerous or criminal use

However, in Canada you need a license just to own guns, and restricted firearms must always be registered. It’s impossible to get a permit to carry a loaded handgun unless your occupation demands it (armored car driver, wilderness prospector etc). A non-restricted gun can be loaded when hunting or target shooting, but never while walking on Main Street downtown.

The truth is that when imperfectly comparing guns to cars, guns are more strictly regulated. Where cars and drivers are licensed, equivalent gun use is usually illegal in Canada.

Why do you need a gun?
The question of “why” often comes up when discussing firearms. There are several answers to that:

  • Because we are a “Free and Democratic Society,” and legally owning a gun doesn’t harm anyone
  • Because target shooting is a fun and safe hobby
  • Because hunting is an ethical way to get meat
  • Because a parent wants to spend quality time with their son or daughter at the range or in the field
  • Because guns are fascinating mechanical devices
  • Because guns often have historical value
  • Because someone may have an abusive ex-partner
  • Because someone is at risk of hate crime
  • Because someone may live or work in a dangerous area, but cannot afford a change
  • Because having to justify guns means justifying big cars, fast motorcycles, personal privacy, digital encryption, the right to protest, and many other “dangerous” things.

The 'Gun Deaths' misdirection
Opponents of lawful gun ownership often bring up a figure called “gun deaths.” This figure consists of these numbers, highest to lowest: suicides, homicides, accidents, and police shootings. According to StatCan, in 2016 (source):

  • Suicides by firearm: 570
  • Homicides by firearm: 143, although a different (source) table shows 223 shooting homicides
  • Accidental deaths: 15
  • Legal interventions (police shootings): 10

Using the larger homicide number, the total is 818 gun deaths in Canada in 2016, making intentional homicide only 27% of total gun deaths. It is not clear if self-defense is included in the homicide figure.

Every suicide is a tragedy. However, it is highly unlikely that reducing lawful gun ownership will improve the suicide rate. The last few years in Canada reveal two unrelated trends:

Similarly, comparing worldwide suicide rates (source) and worldwide gun ownership rates (source) does not reveal any correlation. The top countries by suicide do not resemble top countries by gun ownership, and vice-versa. Suicide is a mental health issue. Attacking a particular method of suicide will only make another method more popular, and have little effect on the overall rate.

A more detailed analysis can be found here.

The “gun deaths” figure consists of multiple components, only a portion of which is criminal misuse of firearms. “Gun deaths” does not mean “gun killings.”

Guns and Crime

Do guns cause crime? Does restricting guns reduce crime? Honest analysis says very likely not.

Blaming the object
Next time you read a news report about an objectionable crime, pay attention to the details of the coverage. If the crime was not committed with a gun, the news focuses on the perpetrator and his motivations. We wonder whether they are evil, misunderstood, cynical, psychopathic, profit-seeking, or something else. The social problems are discussed and dissected. However, if a gun is used, all bets are off, the gun is front and center. Whole paragraphs are dedicated to the size of the gun or how scary it is, and how many more are out there, waiting to be used. The wielder that aimed and pulled the trigger is barely given an equal mention.

Why is that? Crime, including murder, existed before guns, and still exists without guns. Historically (source source), murder rates have been shockingly high by modern standards. Europe in medieval times is estimated to have had 35 per 100,000, declining to 20 in 1500 AD, and further still until present day. All the while firearms were improving and displacing bladed weapons, bows, and crossbows. There are several likely reasons that include economic improvements, cultural evolution, criminology and policing, as well lead pollution. What is clear is that as firearms were spreading and improving, the murder rate went down. The murder trend still appears to decline.
Without a correlation, we cannot pin the blame on firearms. If guns caused crime, murder would rise as guns spread and improved, but murder is declining.

Firearms and violent crime
Violent crime in Canada is declining (source). In 2016, overall violent crime is only 20% of all crime. Out of all violent crime, only 3% is committed with a firearm, making it 0.6% of all crime. Guns are obviously not necessary to commit violent crime. Nor is a gun necessary to commit murder, 64% of which is committed without one (source). It just takes a violent mind with violent intent to commit a violent crime, the weapon is irrelevant.

Does legislation to control firearms have an effect on violent crime, homicide in particular? A comprehensive study by Dr. Callin Langmann says no (link). No association between gun homicide and gun laws exist.

Gang crime
The chief crime trend in Canada is gang crime (source source). Take a look at the following chart:

Do you notice something? The non-gang homicide is on a down-trend. Shooting homicide is also on a down-trend, but see how closely it is tracked by gang homicide. Unlike the others, gang homicide is on an up-trend. Gangs also prefer firearms, using them in 79% of their homicides (source). Gangs are bucking the Canada-wide homicide trends. They scoff at gun control, having the money and connections to acquire smuggled guns. Early intervention and prevention are recognized as the preferred solutions (source example). Gang crime is the real rising threat, and must be recognized and brought under control.