What is a firearm?

Section 2 of the Criminal Code defines a firearm as 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, and 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 divided into three categories: non-restricted, restricted and prohibited. According to information from the RCMP, a non-restricted weapon “includes any rifle or shotgun that is neither restricted nor prohibited. Most common long guns are non-restricted, but there are exceptions.”

What is a restricted firearm?

The RCMP says this category includes:

  • handguns and other firearms that are not prohibited firearms;
  • firearms that have a barrel less than 470 mm in length;
  • are capable of discharging centre-fire ammunition in a semi-automatic manner;
  • those designed or adapted to be fired when reduced to a length of less than 660 mm by folding, telescoping or otherwise; and
  • firearms of any other kind prescribed to be restricted firearms in the regulations.

The permitted purposes for ownership of a non-restricted weapon can include target practice or target shooting competitions, or as part of a gun collection. The RCMP document adds “in limited circumstances, use in connection with one's lawful profession or occupation, or to protect life.”

A transport permit is required to take a restricted firearm from your home where it is registered to another location, such as a firing range. Hunting with restricted firearms is not allowed in Canada.

What is a prohibited firearm?

The RCMP defines prohibited firearms as:

  • handguns with barrels equal to or less than 105 mm in length;
  • handguns designed or adapted to discharge a 25 or 32 calibre cartridge, not including handguns for use in international sporting competitions;
  • firearms adapted from a rifle or shotgun, whether by sawing, cutting or any other alteration; and
  • automatic firearms, whether or not altered to discharge only one projectile with one pressure of the trigger.

According to a May 2020 document from Public Safety Canada (PSC), there are more than 1,500 models of assault-style firearms and “certain components of some newly prohibited firearms (the upper receivers of M16, AR-10, AR-15, and M4 patterns of firearms)” considered to be prohibited weapons. These firearms can no longer be legally used, sold, imported, transferred or transported except as provided in the amnesty program, the document states, adding that “an individual should not deliver a firearm to a police station without first making arrangements with a police officer for a safe and scheduled delivery or pick up.”

Most types of prohibited firearms are "grandfathered" to their current legal owners, which means that owners are allowed to own them, but they cannot be transferred to others. If you do not already have prohibited long guns, there is generally no legal means to acquire firearms of this type.

Why are some weapons prohibited?

A 1993 Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) judgment offered this reasoning as to why automatic guns are prohibited in Canada:

“Let us consider for a moment the nature of automatic weapons, that is to say, those weapons that are capable of firing rounds in rapid succession during one pressure of the trigger,” court documents read. “These guns are designed to kill and maim a large number of people rapidly and effectively. They serve no other purpose. They are not designed for hunting any animal but man. They are not designed to test the skill and accuracy of a marksman. Their sole function is to kill people. These weapons are of no value for the hunter, or the marksman. They should then be used only by the Armed Forces and, in some circumstances, by the police forces. There can be no doubt that they pose such a threat that they constitute a real and present danger to all Canadians. There is good reason to prohibit their use in light of the threat which they pose and the limited use to which they can be put. Their prohibition ensures a safer society.”

The list of affected firearms is available online in the Canada Gazette, Part II. The regulation is also available on the Justice Canada website under Consolidated Acts and Regulations, and the Canadian Firearms Program website. You can also call theCanadian Firearms Program Contact Centre at 1-800-731-4000 to confirm if your firearm is prohibited.

What is not a firearm?

The RCMP has published a list of what is generally not considered a firearm, “provided these items are not in a criminal or negligent manner.” That list includes:

  • antique firearms;
  • devices designed exclusively for signalling or notifying of distress, firing blank cartridges or rivets;
  • shooting devices designed exclusively for slaughtering domestic animals, tranquilizing animals or discharging projectiles with lines attached to them; and
  • air guns and other barreled weapons designed to have a muzzle velocity of 152.4 meters per second or less and a muzzle energy of 5.7 joules or less.

What is the pig’s eye test?

When determining what is a weapon, courts often rely on what is called the pig’s eye test. It was developed by the Firearms Section of the Forensic Laboratory for the Royal Mounted Canadian Police, with pellets shot at a distance of 10 feet into the corneas of pig eyes with a pump-action BB gun, to find out what muzzle capacity was needed to cause damage to the eye.

A 2013 judgment from the Ontario Court of Appeal explained the test “is a standard for determining the capabilities of a barrelled object for causing serious death or bodily injury. The evidence was that if the velocity was 246 ft./s. the object would meet the “V-500 standard,” which is the speed required for the projectile to penetrate the eye 50 percent of the time.”

The judgment notes that a pig’s eye is used for this test “because of their similar size and composition to the human eye.”

Do I need a licence for an airgun?

While a "firearm" generally means a barrelled weapon from which any projectile can be discharged capable of causing serious bodily injury, there has been a partial exception for low-powered airguns. These devices do not require registration nor the owner/purchaser to be licensed.

Bill C-21, now before Parliament, may change that. According to a news report, its goal is to "end the proliferation, importation, export or sale of those replica firearms that exactly resemble regulated firearms and discharge projectiles at a dangerous velocity.”

While the report notes that government officials have said the bill will not target “law-abiding owners and sport shooters,” some airgun retailers are still worried. The story quotes a retailer of equipment for Airsoft, a popular simulated military combat game that is “essentially a game of tag with simulated weapons … players wear protection, including goggles or safety glasses, and instead of paintballs airsoft players shoot small plastic biodegradable pellets at each other.”

He worries the legislation will ultimately lead to the banning of replica paintball guns and “Airsoft guns used by gamers across the country.”

A police officer interviewed for the report notes that these airguns look just like the real weapons they are modelled after, including having the logo of the manufacturer, leading to situations where officers “can’t tell the difference.”

How many legal firearms are in Canada?

There is no accurate way to measure how many firearms are legally owned in Canada. A Department of Justice (DOJ) document states that “the precise number of usable firearms is hard to determine from either official sources or through surveys … any measure of the volume of firearms in Canada [is] a ‘crude estimate’ … the fact that survey respondents may systematically understate the number of firearms they own may also be an issue.”

According to the DOJ, “about 25 percent of Canadian households own some sort of firearm ... it is estimated that about 3 million civilians in Canada own firearms,” with the rate of ownership much higher in the Yukon and the Northwest Territories (67 per cent) as compared to 15 per cent in Ontario households.

According to a PSC document, Canadians “collectively own approximately 7 million firearms and, of these, about 1.2 million are restricted firearms. Surveys consistently indicate that Canadians typically own more long guns than other types of firearms … estimates of the number of firearms circulating in Canada refer to those that are owned legally; they do not account for stolen firearms, or those that are imported and purchased illegally.”

There are about 100,000 legally-owned restricted and prohibited non-handgun firearms – usually rifles and shotguns – registered to individuals, the document states, while the “number of non-restricted firearms … is not known.”

Those numbers are woefully low, according to the website thegunblog.ca, which states that there are more than 20 million guns in Canada, “owned by individuals for protection, hunting, recreation, competition, collecting, predator control, and other beneficial uses.”

Other interesting statistics on that site include that there are 1,400 target-shooting ranges in Canada, “about the same as the number of McDonald’s restaurants” and 13 per cent of licensed firearm owners are female.

Experienced counsel makes a difference

Regulations around firearms can be confusing and are often updated. Gun owners are sometimes unaware of the new rules, which can then lead to charges. If you are facing a firearms offence, contact me for a free consultation so we can plan your best defence.

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