The Lock, Stock and Barrel About Canadian Firearms Laws

top page gun

Canadian gun control advocates have recently called upon Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to adhere to his campaign promises of reducing access to firearms, in response to the Las Vegas shooting earlier this month at the Route 91 Harvest music festival, noting that gun ownership in Canada has been on the rise. The Las Vegas massacre left 58 dead and hundreds of others injured, becoming the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history. In the midst of these calls, it is important to understand that Canada has some of the most thorough and restrictive firearms legislation in the world – a response to Canada’s own tragic mass shootings. The most comprehensive Canadian firearms legislation, the Firearms Act, 1995, was introduced in response to Canada’s second major school shooting, the École Polytechnique massacre that occurred on December 6, 1989, which left 14 women dead and 14 others injured.

Converting from a Certification System to a Licensing System

Certification of firearms owners began through the introduction of the Firearms Acquisition Certificate (FAC) in 1977, which permitted the holder to purchase and sell firearms, privately, but did not restrict a person’s right to possess a firearm. Essentially, those who had firearms prior to its introduction could keep them. Applying for an FAC was a simple matter: filling out a one-page application; paying a small fee; and waiting less than a week for processing.

The Firearms Act, 1995 stands as the most important piece of firearms legislation in Canada, as the FAC certification was replaced with the Possession and Acquisition License (PAL) and the Possession-Only License (POL). . Consequently, several notable changes were brought into law, including the amendment of the Criminal Code to include harsher penalties for crimes where a firearm is used (e.g. murder, armed robbery, etc.); the introduction of the requirement to register all firearms, and lastly, the creation of a new licensing system – the most substantial change.

The Different Classifications of Firearms in Canada

With the introduction of the PAL system, firearms are classified into three categories: non-restricted, restricted, and prohibited – each with their own legislated methods of safe storage and transportation. Each class of firearm must meet a strict set of criteria to be included under a specific class.

Non-restricted firearms are the most accessible and most commonly-owned firearms in Canada, as they are the only firearms permitted for hunting use. Most rifles and shotguns are included under this category. The Firearms Act restricts the number of cartridges in a magazine, often incorrectly referred to as a ‘clip’. Non-restricted firearms are restricted to five rounds per magazine.

Ruger 10/22 (Ten Twenty-Two) – One of the most popular long-guns in North America.

Lee-Enfield Mk. I – Canadian Military-issue in WWI & WWII, but now classified as non-restricted.

Restricted firearms include handguns and some rifles, such as the AR-15 and its variants, among others. Rifles are restricted to a 5-round limit and handguns to a 10-round limit per magazine.

Restricted Firearms (requiring a non-restricted/restricted PAL):


Glock 17 – A common full-sized handgun.

Smith and Wesson M&P Sport II – a common restricted rifle, and an AR-15 variant.

Prohibited firearms are clearly defined in the Criminal Code. Canadians may only possess a prohibited firearm if they have had one registered in their name prior to it receiving ‘prohibited’ status, and they have continuously held a valid registration certificate for that type of prohibited firearm since December 1, 1998.

Walther PPK – Known as the handgun of James Bond. Prohibited in Canada due to the barrel length being less than 4.1 inches.

Heckler & Koch MP-5 – Note the select-fire lever above the trigger mechanism, allowing the operator to select between semi-automatic and fully-automatic firing modes.

Unlike the US, concealed carry permits (Authorization to Carry) cannot be obtained by members of the public, unless they would qualify these criteria. In addition, Canadian law also prohibits many firearms-related devices. For example, during the recent Las Vegas shooting investigation, a device known as a ‘bump stock’ was discovered on some of the guns used.  ‘Bump stocks’ essentially convert semi-automatic weapons (where pulling the trigger discharges a single round) into a quasi-fully-automatic. While bump stocks do not alter the mechanical function of the firearm, they are considered prohibited under the Criminal Code.

The Possession and Acquisition License (PAL) Application Process

For an individual to be granted a PAL, they must:

  • Attend an intensive firearms safety course;
  • Go through a rigorous criminal background check process;
  • Provide two references;
  • Pay a licensing fee;
  • Have their photo taken (which must be signed by a Photo Guarantor); and
  • Send their application to their provincial Chief Firearms Officer (CFO), who are RCMP–designates responsible for the administrative and approval work required in the PAL application process.

Canadians (aged 18 and older) can apply for either a non-restricted PAL, or a non-restricted/restricted combination PAL. To obtain the second, an applicant must have taken both a non-restricted (eight hours of classroom training) and restricted firearms (four hours of classroom training) safety course. In each safety course, applicants are evaluated on their adherence to the mandatory firearms handling and safety techniques.

Once the provincial CFO receives an application, it is their responsibility to conduct a criminal background check on the applicant, which may or may not involve contacting their two references. Additionally, the Firearms Act mandates a waiting period of at least 28 days before issuing a PAL. When the process is completed, an applicant is then permitted to purchase, sell firearms privately to other PAL holders, and possess firearms and ammunition. There are currently no limitations on the amount of ammunition a PAL holder can purchase or possess, so long as it is stored properly.

Recent Significant Changes to Canadian Firearms Legislation

In 2012, Stephen Harper’s majority government passed the Ending the Long-gun Registry Act , which removed the registration requirement for all non-restricted firearms and, more controversially, ordered the destruction of all non-restricted firearms registration records. By 2015, all non-restricted firearms registration records had been destroyed.

Prior losing to Justin Trudeau in the 2015 federal election, Harper passed the Common Sense Firearms Licensing Act. This act further amended the Criminal Code to make classroom safety training obligatory for all first-time license applicants (this was for those who held POLs, but expired before converting to a PAL), and prohibited the possession of firearms by any individual convicted of a domestic violence offence. Two additional provisions were passed under this Act later that year, which eliminated the Possession-Only License (POL) – requiring all POL holders to convert to PALs, and including an Authorization to Transport (ATT) as a condition on the license. The latter permits restricted PAL holders to legally transport any of their registered restricted firearms for any routine and lawful activity (e.g. visiting a shooting rage, taking the firearm to a gunsmith for repairs, etc.). Prior to this provision, firearms owners would be required to submit a document requesting authorization from the Federal government to transport their firearms from their registered location to a range, gunsmith, or firearms shop (and vice versa).

Clearly, Canadian firearms legislation has gone through considerable changes since the 1970s, and with constant pressure from many gun control advocates, additional changes may be looming right around the corner.