Firearms are a rather polarizing topic, of that I am well aware. Below are some insights into my own experiences as a gun owner in Canada. They are not all-encompassing, but I feel that they are fairly representative of the experiences of myself and some others that I know. Again, I am not purporting to speak for everyone. Most of the details below are technical, with some aspects of my experience and perception thrown in. There are lots of other details, so ensure you are consulting the proper source and authorities, if you are looking to own firearms in Canada; don’t just take my word for it!
What It’s Like to Own Firearms in Canada
Firearms are regulated at the federal level, with most aspects of regulation enforcement and licensing handled by the RCMP. The laws are set by the legislature. For some history on firearms in Canada, you can read this Wikipedia page. In order to own firearms in Canada, you are required to have a PAL or POL.
Possession and Acquisition Licence (PAL)
A PAL is licence that allows you to possess firearms, purchase firearms and acquire ammunition. You can also get a Possession Only Licence (POL), but you can’t purchase firearms or ammunition. Most of the time, the people who have a POL, have it because they have inherited firearms which they do not intend to use. Sometimes, a spouse will have a POL, to ensure they do not have any problems storing guns in the future, for example if their spouse was to die unexpectedly. Another reason some people will have a POL is if they have children who hunt with a relative, or participate in sport shooting. Individuals between age 12 and 18 can apply for a minor’s licence, in certain circumstances, which has a few limitations on it as well.
There are three classifications of firearms in Canada, Non-Restricted, Restricted and Prohibited.
- Most firearms are non-restricted, a category that includes most rifles and shotguns, which are not fully automatic.
- Restricted firearms are handguns, rifles with barrels shorter than 470mm, and “rifles and shotguns that can be fired when their overall length has been reduced by folding, telescoping or other means to less than 660 mm.”
- If firearms do not fall into those two categories, they may be considered Prohibited. Prohibited firearms include automatics, converted automatics, altered weapons that make them shorter than minimum requirements (i.e. sawed off shotguns), handguns with barrels shorter than 105mm, and handguns that discharge 0.25 or 0.32 calibre rounds, except for those used in International Shooting Union competitions.
There are also several firearms which fall outside of the standard definitions of these three categories. For example, guns which look like certain firearms are restricted and/or prohibited. There are limited circumstances in which you can own Prohibited firearms, primarily in cases where owning them is grandfathered; most of the time, when the current owner can no longer possess them, they must be destroyed.
PALs are issued as either Non-Restricted class, or Restricted Class, according to the categories above.
In order to get a PAL or POL, you must attend a Canadian Firearms Safety Course, which is generally two days long and is taught by a licensed instructor. For a Restricted-class PAL, you must take the Canadian Restricted Firearms Safety Course. In both courses, there is a practical exam on handling various types of firearms, plus a written exam. Once you pass the course and exams, you have to complete paperwork and send it to the RCMP for approval, along with photographs and a service fee of $60 or $80, depending on the licence type. There are questions on past criminal activities, several mental health questions, and you must list all relationships and their status for the past several years, including the relationship status.
For example, I have a friend who is recently divorced and wouldn’t mind taking hunting up again after more than a decade. My friend figures that the hassle of dealing with the approvals required from the ex-spouse make it not worth it to pursue licensing, for now.
With both new licenses and renewals on PALs, they do check references. Despite listing me at the same residence, the RCMP called to confirm that I saw no issues with renewing my spouse’s PAL. The same thing happened when mine was up for renewal. Similar paperwork and fees are required every five years for renewal.
The PAL itself is a purple photo ID card, containing basic information: date of birth, gender, eye colour, height, license number, full legal name, type of licence and expiry date. It does not include an address. It is legal, government issued ID and can be used as such, for voting, bars, and could be used for crossing the border prior to land-crossing passport requirements. Unfortunately I couldn’t find an image of a PAL that I could post here, but you can find them pretty easily by searching online.
Of note, the PAL is entirely separate from hunting requirements, which are similar. It is possible to have a hunting licence without a PAL, as long as you are in direct supervision of someone who holds a PAL (or POL).
In general, firearms should be double locked for storage. That means a trigger lock, and a gun safe, in most cases. Restricted firearms require the dual-locking system, and it is considered good practice to double-lock non-restricted firearms. Ammunition must be stored separately, though that can mean a locked box inside of a gun safe.
In a vehicle, they need to be out of sight, and can never be loaded during transportation. Restricted and Prohibited weapons need to have their bolts removed, and require an Authorization to Transport permit (ATT). An ATT can be issued for up to five years (the length for which a PAL is valid), for a regular location. Most of the time, it is to go from home to a shooting range. For competitions, or for a gun collector traveling to a show, a one-time ATT is generally required. While hunting with a handgun is illegal, trappers are permitted to carry them for protection. (Cougars and bears are dangerous, and drawn to trapped game!)
You will note that there is no such thing as concealed carry, and that you require a permit for all transportation of a hand gun, regardless of destination. That basically means that you can’t wander down the street with a handgun.
In order to buy ammunition, you need to have a PAL. When you go to a store, at the cash register, you have to show your PAL to make the purchase. It is not keyed into the computer or anything, though. Some stores have a policy where the ammunition is walked to the front cash register by an employee, whereas at other stores you can pick it up off the shelf and take it yourself. Some stores have it locked up, in others it is on an open shelf.
Guns work the same way, though if I recall correctly, there is a little bit of paperwork. Guns are always locked up and accessible only by employees. Until recently, Canada had what was called the Canadian Firearms Registry. A political beast, it was ended in 2012 and the Long Gun records were destroyed. Those records listed serial numbers, names and addresses of firearm owners. On registration of a firearm, you received a paper card in the mail for each gun. While it was in effect, there was a processing fee. Unfortunately, I cannot remember how much it was exactly, but I think that it was around $80. On a $1200 rifle and scope set up, the $80 wasn’t much of a disincentive. However, on a $300 0.22LR, the $80 effective tax was enough of a deterrent that I did not purchase one at the time.
Another interesting money point, as this is a money blog after all, is that rifles are more or less priced in US dollars. As the exchange rate moves, so too do the prices. If the exchange rate jumps, you will probably see the prices reflected within 3 weeks or so, which is a very fast price-pass through for Canada.
Despite firearms being priced in US dollars, crossing the border, either direction, is a nightmare. It IS possible to bring guns or gun accessories across the border, but there is a litany of paperwork involved and a lot of planning. If you were to have a firearm or accessory in your vehicle and forgot to declare it, it would be immediately seized and you would have a boatload of problems. That holds regardless of your citizenship and the direction in which you are crossing.
General Attitudes and Experiences
I currently live in a rural area, where a lot of people, myself included, are hunters. Despite that being the case, the topic of guns tends to only be discussed with other hunters or people who are comfortable discussing guns. For example, I would never bring them up in random conversation with friends, unless it was a very good friend and I was excited about something in particular. They would be a topic of discussion if my friends were gun owners themselves, or asked questions. Along those lines, we do not broadcast where our gun safe or ammunition safe are located, nor the location of the keys.
It is not that I actively try to not talk about guns, more that it just isn’t brought up. People know that I hunt, and if they ask questions, I am happy to answer them. My spouse and I have taken friends to the range and taught them how to handle guns and how to fire them.
As a bit of a contrast, I spent most of my teenage years living in a city. I was born in a small town, though. In the city, we definitely did not talk about gun ownership. My brother and I were explicitly told not to tell our friends where the gun safe was, on the off chance that they would have a bad or dumb idea. We both understood that quite readily. We were raised on acreage, where we could shoot pellet guns off of the back deck, and learned gun safety at a young age. Most people do not have that opportunity. I have been around people doing some rather stupid things with pellet guns and BB guns, and it is frequently because they only ever came into contact with them when an older sibling or relative was their first introduction to the little guns, passing on extremely bad behaviours.
I will venture that the majority of Canadians have never handled a firearm, and many have never even considered it. Most will only have seen them in the possession of police officers, or perhaps members of the military. Most of the time, our military has unloaded firearms or blanks, for example at parades, as they are rarely performing military duties at-home.
I did an informal poll on twitter and Facebook. I asked if people had shot a firearm before, and was slightly surprised at how many had. Many had done it in their 20s and 30s for the first time, and the answers tended to be “never” for urban folks and “yes” for rural folks, more or less. A few people in the military answered my poll. Several had fired pellet and BB guns, but nothing larger. For example, Krystal agreed with my assessment that most Canadians would not have handled a firearm and doesn’t believe that she knows anyone in person who owns one. Like a bunch of my friends from high school, some people had handled guns at a range in Vegas, or elsewhere. A bunch of my friends fired guns for the first time while traveling in Southeast Asia, where there are many ranges catering to tourists.
In general, I feel that the training and licensing process is fairly rigorous and works well for the safety of our society.
Guns, Laws, Crime, Etc.
According to this list on Wikipedia, Canadians own 30.8 guns for every 100 people. In the US, that number is 90.0, putting them in first place. Canada is in 13th place and the bulk of the countries in the middle are Scandinavian, Middle Eastern, and Uruguay and Serbia are in there for good measure. I’m only referencing the United States because that is where many of you are from, and there is a decidedly different gun culture present there.
Canada has 2.22 firearm related deaths per 100,000, per year, according to this article. Of that number, however, 1.66 are suicides, for a net of 0.56 per 100,000 . In the United States, the figure is 10.3, with 6.30 attributed to suicide, for a net of 4.00. The other categories are homicide, unintentional and undetermined.
We do not have an equivalent to the U.S. second amendment, no matter how you interpret that amendment. My brief look on the internet, to double check my understanding, showed there are some that feel the right to bear arms is somewhat grandfathered through our adoption of English Common Law. That said, I understand it is a rather tenuous and unproven in court stance, due to the time in the past and superseding of other laws, such as the Firearms Act.
To expand further on the different relationship between the state and the people on the topic of guns, Canada also does not have Posse Comitatus. That is the act in the United States, from 1878, which prohibits the military from being used to enforce state law; basically the military cannot act on domestic soil. Canada does not have an equivalent law, and our military is used at home when needed. We do not have an equivalent to the National Guard, our military does all of those tasks, like responding to crises and national disaster. The military supports Search and Rescue, as well.
I own guns because I hunt, which I have written a bit about before. (We’ve got two white tail deer, a turkey, some hares, and some grouse this year; thanks for asking!) I also enjoy trap shooting, which is similar to skeet shooting, which you may have heard of before. Belonging to the Rod & Gun Club in town involves a small annual membership fee, I think it is $40 for a family, and includes use of the range and several million dollars of liability insurance (+ some random hotel discounts and whatnot). Oh yes… I also have an irrational fear of bears, and do a lot better camping when there is a 12 gauge loaded with slugs and shot around. (Where permitted, of course, firearms are prohibited in national parks.)
Do you have any questions I could answer for you about what it’s like to own firearms in Canada?