There has been much discussion during the recent months, and especially during the current election period, about potential handgun bans and “restricted” firearms. We frequently get queries during our training courses about these topics and the impact that any legislative changes may have on firearm ownership in Canada.
Firearms are, of course, highly regulated in Canada. They are all considered to be weapons, and as such, the law does not generally allow the possession or use of them without permission in the form of a licence.
For regulatory purposes, firearms can exist in one of three legal classifications in Canada: non-restricted, restricted and prohibited.
Non-restricted firearms include most common shotguns and rifles. These are sometimes referred to as “long” guns, and include many different varieties of actions, furnishings, bore sizes, and other features. They are typically used for hunting, target and sports shooting, collecting, and occasionally for protection, particularly in the armoured car industry, and among those who spend a lot of time outdoors.
These are the least regulated firearms in Canada – but they are still very regulated. An appropriate licence is required to possess or acquire them, and to do so without such a licence is a serious crime.
Handguns and many “assault-style” firearms fall into the next category, restricted firearms. As is implied, there are further restrictions on these firearms due to their concealability, portability, intended uses or design features, or other factor.
Not only is an appropriate class of licence required for them, which is different and requires an additional safety course than for non-restricted firearms, but they must also be registered and kept only at the place where registered, normally the owner’s residence. They can still be taken and used elsewhere, but this requires additional permission in the form of an authorization to transport (or carry) which is issued by the provincial authorities. In Ontario, this is a senior OPP officer who holds the office of Chief Firearms Officer.
In addition to these increased restrictions, there are further increased measures on how these firearms are secured when stored or transported, to deter theft or misuse.
“Assault” firearms are not a class of firearm, but many firearms that are thought of in this way are already in the restricted class, meaning they are among the most heavily regulated firearms a citizen who is not a peace officer or member of the military can have. Typically, these are semi-automatic rifles with features conducive to accurate, long distance rapid firing.
One cannot hunt with any restricted firearm. A person also cannot take their restricted firearm in their car without it being trigger or cable locked to disable to action, then locked in an opaque, locked container, unloaded. They must have permission – the authorization to transport – to move the firearm from their home, and they may only obtain one for a valid reason.
To fail to lock these firearms as specified, or to fail to have an authorization to transport them (or to transport them in a manner contrary to the authorization they have) is a serious crime which can result in the forfeiture of all of a person’s firearms and their licence, among other penalties.
It is a common misconception that restricted rifles, shotguns and handguns can be readily brought places with little or no regulation, but this is simply not the case. Ask any experienced gun owner, they will tell you that a trip to the local shooting range requires some measure of advance planning. Side trips to see relatives in other locales away from one’s home or an approved gun club, for example, would be deemed an unauthorized deviation from the conditions of the authorization to transport, and subject the owner to severe penalties.
Municipalities may be given some leeway to “ban” handguns in coming months or years depending on legislative changes imposed by governments. It is impossible to predict exactly what this legislation would entail and what further restrictions would be imposed on owners of these firearms within those municipalities.
A variety of measures could be attached to such a ban, such as further restrictions on the transit movement of these firearms through those communities, or outright prohibitions on same. Residents who own handguns in these places may be forced to store them elsewhere, and an appropriate legislative amendment would be required to ensure this could be authorized, as presently alternative storage is likely a relatively uncommon request to provincial CFO’s.
These additional municipal bans may or may not have an impact on current issues such as gun crime, it is difficult to say. Presumably, security companies and of course law enforcement and the military will still retain their handguns in these communities, leaving the chance of theft still a factor in criminals obtaining these firearms in the community. And of course, the portability of handguns in general (which is the reason they are so highly regulated in Canada in the first place) means they can slip in and out of “gun-free” cities with ease when transported by ill-intended criminals.
Reclassifying handguns, and “assault” rifles into the prohibited category is another option available to regulators. There are already tens of thousands of prohibited firearms legally owned by private citizens, mainly because they owned these firearms before one of several instances of further regulation, such as the short-barrelled handgun ban of the late 1990s, and retained them under the “grandfathering” scheme.
Many of these firearms have earned the nickname “safe queens” because of the fact that they occupy their locked palaces in a stately, grand manner but rarely, if ever, leave them. Functionally, they are usually similar to non-restricted and restricted firearms in that the safety principles of ACTS/PROVE are still applied to them.
Again, they are highly misunderstood outside of the firearms community. Many uninitiated believe the firearms in the prohibited category are actually widely owned and classed in other categories, such as restricted or non-restricted. They believe they can be transported about in a similar way, when in fact it is rare they can be transported at all. No new prohibited firearms can be imported, and only ones already in Canada can be bought, sold or traded, and even then, only amongst other owners of similarly categories prohibited firearms.
This is because even amongst the few prohibited licence holders, there are further firewalls to gun ownership in the other prohibited categories. For example, a person who legally owns a short-barrelled prohibited revolver as their only prohibited firearm cannot acquire a converted automatic rifle, another type of prohibited firearm that occupies a different subclass.
We hope we have been able to enlighten some readers with further facts and information about the three classes of firearms and the regulatory regime surrounding them, in an effort for people to better understand the depth and breadth of Canadian firearms regulation.