Under the gun: The burden of being a gun owner in Canada

August 3, 2011

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(WBEZ/Rob Wildeboer)
A special gun case required to transport a firearm in Canada.

Canadians have to go through that lengthy process to get a gun, however they still aren't in the clear to carry or use it.  Canada’s laws place stringent legal responsibilities on gun owners.

You have to go through a class, apply for a license, go through a waiting period, and the government calls your personal references to ask if they've ever known you to be violent, or whether you get violent when you've been drinking.

Joel made it through that whole process. He doesn't want me to use his last name because like almost all Canadian gun owners he doesn't want people to know he owns a gun.

“It's economics.  When something is restricted and it's very hard to get something that has value, the value goes up which means it becomes very attractive to thieves,” Joel said.  “My relatives for example, friends, they may know that I'm a shooter they have no idea where in the house my firearms are.  No idea.”

If it gets stolen he could face criminal charges for unsafe storage.

“I will most likely end up with a legal bill in excess of $20,000. My firearms will be confiscated and I'll never be able to touch another firearm in this country. And the person who stole them, if ever found, will not get any kind of a sentence like that,” Joel said.  “By the way, very, very, very few firearms are stolen in Canada, very, very few.”

Asked if the regulations are working and keeping the guns out of the hands, Joel replies with hesitation in his voice: “They probably are.”

Fourth in a series

The cities of Chicago and Toronto are the same size. Chicago has about 450 murders a year. Toronto? About 60. In the series, Under the Gun: Murder in Chicago and Toronto, WBEZ’s criminal and legal affairs reporter Robert Wildeboer asks: Why?

Previously

He has a bit of a love/hate relationship with Canadian gun laws.

He follows them meticulously and thinks some are effective, but he also thinks the government over-regulates guns -- especially handguns -- resulting in some laws that he says are just stupid.

Target shooting with his handgun is actually a hobby he had picked up recently.

When he retired he tried golf and it wasn't for him.

“Target shooting is not unlike golf.  The projectile is a bit different but the mental concentration and the physical control and the zen if you know what I mean are all very very similar and very very satisfying,” he said.

Joel leaves his home in a suburb just north of Toronto with a black duffle bag in hand. His 40-caliber Glock is in the bag, which he puts in his car. Joel can't just put the gun in his pocket and go to the range. There are very particular rules.

His gun has to be unloaded, trigger locked, locked in an opaque case, and the ammo is separate in its own locked compartment.

Joel walks into the gun store that serves as the entrance for his shooting range. “I call this the men's jewelry store,” Joel said.

He goes up to the counter to buy a box of ammo. Canadian law requires Joel to show the clerk his firearms license. Without it, Joel can't buy ammunition.

“[This] is an example of the kind of additional, thank you so much, paperwork I have to carry around,” he said.

The registration for his particular gun, and something called an ATT. “This is an authorization to transport a restricted or prohibited handgun and it allows me to take handguns from my house to my range, period.  And from my range to my house, period.”

“Has this prevented a single crime?  Has this piece of paper prevented a single crime?  No.”

Chris Wyatt is the chief firearms officer for the province of Ontario. His office processes all the applications from people hoping to become gun owners.  “The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that firearms ownership in Canada is not a right but a privilege.”

“Public safety's better served by knowing where all the firearms are and making people accountable for the ownership of their firearms,” he said.

Wyatt says the firearm is linked to the owner and that prevents legal gun owners from selling their firearms illegally.

“Well we're reasonable right, like, we don't say that you can't stop or you can't get gas or any of that stuff, nobody's gonna make an issue out of that but if you're now in a bar, here's my residence, here's my club but you’re not anywhere near those two places then you'd have some tough questions to answer.”

At a gun range just west of Toronto, Tony, who doesn't want us to use his last name, and his friends do a shooting sport called IPSC.  “Okay, I think our gun laws are not that bad.  Handguns have been registered in Canada for probably over 80 years.  They've been registered for a long time.”

A shooter would run up the gun range and take 8 shots at different stations at targets that are partially hidden by hanging plywood. 

The practice would have someone shooting through a window cut out of the plywood – similar to a paintball course.

As Tony leaves the range he packs his handgun into his range bag, as required by law.

“I have no problem that it has to be in a case and has to be locked up and unloaded.  I have no problem with it at all.  That seems like a reasonable thing to me.  What I have a problem with is with the long gun registration it is a total waste of money,” Tony said.

While restrictions on handguns are pretty well accepted, the so called long gun registry is the front in the gun rights battle in Canada.

It's basically a debate over whether it makes sense to keep forcing all rifle owners to register their guns.

Tony says the registry costs too much and that money could be better spent on things like health care.

But what's so interesting is that Tony and other gun owners in Canada are debating the merits of different gun policies.

Here in the U.S., the national debate rarely gets that far.

It's usually about personal freedom and the role of government, not about what makes good gun policy.

But Tony says the debate in Canada isn't always governed by reason. 

He says politicians often have knee-jerk reactions to violent incidents and they push gun legislation not because it makes sense, but because gun control is an easy sell in Canada and it makes them look good.

“It's like a piece of pie and every time you take a slice of the piece of pie it gets smaller and that's what politicians do.  They start, they start nibbling away at it.  They take this little thing away from you, they take this little thing away from you and next thing you know there's nothing left of it,” Tony said.  “That's why in the U.S. and I agree with them in the U.S. that's why, the NRA is opposed to anything and I agree with them a hundred percent on that.”