Under the gun: Getting a gun in Canada
Chicago and Toronto are the same size, but Toronto has a fraction of the murders. There are a lot of factors to consider when you question why that is, among them: poverty, gang activity, segregation, differing social safety nets –and the availability of guns. WBEZ looks at what it takes to get a gun in Canada.
The first step in legally obtaining a gun in Canada is taking the Canadian Firearms Safety Course and Test. The course is required to obtain a possession and acquisition licence. The course however, wasn’t mandated until 1991.
Third 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?
Obtaining an PAL does not allow its owner unfettered access to firearms, but instead allows its bearer to obtain a “non-restricted” firearm. Non-restricted firearms are generally considered to be sporting rifles, shotguns or airguns.
Just west of Toronto, Sherrie Saduaskas teaches the federally mandated firearms safety course out of a local Royal Canadian Legion Hall in Burlington, Ontario, where she rents out the museum room –a long narrow room in the basement of the legion hall.
“If I’m going to have to pay rent I’d like to pay it in my community and help support my seniors,” she said. The Canadian Legion is an organization for war veterans, with legion halls like this all over Canada.
Canada’s stringent regulations require that the firearms test be administered by a designated instructor, who is approved by a province’s chief firearms officer.
Inside the hall, the walls are lined with black and white army photos, and plastic model airplanes hang by fishing lines from the ceiling.
During one class, Sadauskas has a couple dozen students, most of them young white men hoping to buy guns. She goes over the basics.
“This is Bull’s Eye 9 hearing protection, okay? Spend some money here, ay. Once you’re hearings gone –it’s gone,” Sadauskas said. She gives students advice about aiming up hills before showing a video about shooting on a fire range.
The hall is not exactly a firing range, where most would expect to take such a course. There is no shortage of loud noises however. Sadauskas has to keep her voice up because on the other side of the wall, just outside the museum room, a musician sings and plays his guitar along with prerecorded tracks while dozens of senior citizens move around a green and yellow tiled dance floor.
The dance is par for the course, but later Sadauskas also has to compete with a fireman’s pipe-and-drum band having a fundraiser upstairs. On other days, she has to keep her classes quiet so as to not interrupt nearby bingo games.
On the second day of class, Sadauskas has dozens of handguns and rifles lying on tables.
The PAL allows Canadians to own and operate “non-restricted” firearms. A “restricted” firearm generally refers to handguns, and requires a separate certification training course, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police website.
Further, another class of weapons is categorized as “prohibited,” which includes automatic firearms, with the exception of those owning them prior to their prohibition.
The weapons on display at Sadauskas’ class are using dummy ammunition.
Each of the students rotates around, learning how to check and load each firearm.
“We’re going to first remove the cartridges.” A gun part is then dropped.
“Whoops. Now, okay, good point, that happened and that’s OK that that happened,” she said.
In addition to dropping parts of the guns, the students also end up accidently pointing the guns at themselves and each other.
After the class, students eat soup and sandwiches made by the ladies auxiliary at the veterans’ hall.
Ryan Smith explained how hard it was to handle a 9-millimeter handgun. “There’s three buttons on it, one releases the magazine, one’s a safety and one’s to lock the slide and you have no idea which one does what, right?”
“If you’ve never touched that gun before,” chimed fellow student Kyle Bartlett.
“Or you hit the safety off and all of a sudden you’re pulling the slide and it catches your hand, rips your hand open,” Smith said.
“Well even you look at that one guy, I mean he did finally get it but like he was having like muzzle, she kept going “muzzle direction,” because he was like screwing with it and he was just all over the place, right, like, that could be a bit of a bad scene. Like you know okay, he’s getting it driven into cause she’s on him for every step, hey, watch, oop, blup… you could see how if nobody was there doing that he’d blow himself away. Blow his head off,” Bartlett said.
The people in this class will have to wait several weeks to find out if they pass, but even if they do, there are several more steps before they can actually get a gun.
They still have to apply for a firearms license, which like a driver’s license requires a photo.
There’s a 28-day waiting period for that and the government runs background checks and calls personal references to talk to them to see if they think the applicant can handle a gun.
But that still doesn’t allow the person to buy a handgun and bring it home. There’s a separate license required to take the handgun out of the store. The Authorization to Transport (ATT) is even required for person to a gun from one location to another in Canada – even to move a gun from a home to a firing range.
The whole process takes months, but for the most part the students in this class don’t mind the restrictions. In fact, they appreciate them.
“I don’t really consider it going through hoops. It’s a weekend, a couple hundred dollars,” said one student Paula. “For the responsibility of carrying around a firearm? I think that’s more than worth it. I would like to know that anyone around me who has the ability to use a firearm knows what the hell they’re doing and knows how to do it safely, and knows how to think of me and my family and not just themselves and I want to do this so I’m gonna do it,” she said.
The mindset is a stark contrast to that of the gun culture in the U.S., where such restrictions and hoops are the focus of vigorous opposition from the NRA.
Paula, who asks that we not use her last name, says she doesn’t mind that it’s going to be a while before she can actually get her gun.
“Doesn’t bother me, have to wait a long time to shoot a moose. Like, moose will be there in three weeks, moose will be there in a few months. I don’t need to shoot a moose today. I’ll be okay.”
Bob Roberts is an American who has been living part-time in Toronto since his daughter married a man from Toronto and moved there.
“You know, initially, coming from the states I thought it was a lot more inconvenient and maybe a little bit over, over-controlling,” he said.
Roberts is from Arizona where he says he always carries a handgun.
He owns eight tobacco stores Arizona and he says driving around with $40, 000 worth of smokes is dangerous because stolen cigarettes are so easy to sell.
He’s never been robbed, but his employees have been –many times.
“Twice at gun-point, once at knife-point, once at baseball bat point, and two or three times at threat of a gun. I’ve got a gun here but they never showed it,” Roberts said.
Roberts says as he’s spent more time in Canada his views on guns and guns laws have changed.
He never thought registration was a good idea because it was an infringement of his constitutionally guaranteed freedom and he didn’t see any upside.
“The fear of the NRA, and mine too formerly as well, were that it would be one step towards confiscation and once you know where every gun is, then it’s real easy for a government to come in and confiscate,” he said.
Roberts is a proud member of the NRA but he says sometimes the NRA is too focused on defending freedom and as a member he’d support more restrictions and registration requirements on firearms.
“I think we in the states have to balance a loss of freedom with the greater good which would be to eliminate the bad stuff that happens with unregulated firearms. Times are changing you know, and I might not have said that 10 years ago but I’ve really modified my personal belief on that.”
Roberts won’t be able to carry his handgun in Canada like he does in Arizona, but after finishing this class and applying for a firearms permit and going through the other steps, he will be able to legally own a handgun, but that ownership will still be heavily regulated by the Canadian government.
--Bill Healy contributed to this report.
Support for reporting on gun violence comes from a grant from John Jay College Center on Media, Crime and Justice, with the Joyce and David Bohnett foundations.
Content is the responsibility solely of WBEZ.
Corrections & Clarifications:
A previous version of this article stated that the license to obtain a firearm in Canada is a Firearms Acquisition Certificate, which was an older and outdated certification to obtain a firearm. The new license is referred to as a possession and acquisition licence.