The number of restricted firearms registered in Canada rose nearly 24 per cent in the first three years of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government.
The number of registered firearms that are restricted or prohibited stood at 1.16 million at the end of 2018, according to the Commissioner of Firearms report for 2018.
When the Trudeau government was elected in 2015, there were 978,347 restricted or prohibited firearms registered in Canada.
But while the number of restricted guns is up overall, there was a slight drop in the number of prohibited firearms registered across the country. Most provinces showed only small drops or gains in the number of prohibited firearms — sometimes the result of gun owners moving from one province to another. The one exception was British Columbia, where the number of prohibited guns rose 7.7 per cent.
The report does not say how many unregistered firearms or illegal guns may be in Canada.
Statistics for 2019 are not yet available. Firearms advocate Tony Bernardo, executive director of the Canadian Shooting Sports Association, predicts the number of restricted firearms will continue to rise — partly in reaction to the Trudeau government’s decision to ban some models.
“It led to a spurt of people buying them, so if the Trudeau government went and banned more — which it appears they’re likely to do — in the event that they were grandfathered, people would still be able to possess them,” he said.
Heidi Rathjen is coordinator of PolySeSouvient, a group which advocates for tougher gun laws. She said the rise is also due to gun enthusiasts and gun clubs actively promoting restricted firearms.
“We have a gun lobby that is growing in size, growing in numbers,” Rathjen said. “We have a record number of gun owners and there’s heavy promotion going on with respect to the ownership of restricted weapons.”
The report was tabled in Parliament as the federal government prepares to make changes to the laws that govern firearms in Canada.
The first item in the long list of tasks in Public Safety Minister Bill Blair’s mandate letter is “[amending] Canada’s firearms laws to ban all military-style assault rifles, with an associated buyback program and two-year amnesty.”
Trudeau has directed Blair to work with provinces and territories to give municipalities “the ability to further restrict or ban handguns.” The minister also has been instructed to tighten safe-storage laws, develop a mechanism for suspending firearms licences for those who pose a danger to themselves or others, and introduce stronger penalties for smuggling drugs.
Speaking in the House of Commons Tuesday, Blair said the government still plans to amend Canada’s gun laws.
“We have listened very clearly to Canadians and we are going to eliminate the presence of weapons from our society that were designed to kill people,” Blair said.
“However, that is not all we are going to do. We are going to strengthen the law with respect to securing our borders, we are going to strengthen our laws to prevent the theft of handguns that get into the hands of criminals, and we are going to strengthen our laws to deter criminal diversion of handguns.”
Firearms in Canada fall into one of three classes, according to the report: non-restricted firearms such as shotguns and rifles, restricted firearms (which the report says are “predominantly handguns”) and prohibited firearms, which consist of “certain handguns and fully automatic firearms.”
The biggest change in the statistics is in the number of registered restricted firearms, which rose to 983,792 across the country at the end of 2018 from 795,854 in 2015 — an increase of 23.6 per cent. While Ontario had the most restricted firearms in 2018 — 365,006 — the provinces that saw the largest spike in the number of these guns between 2015 and 2018 were Quebec (a 26.7 per cent increase) followed by Newfoundland and Labrador at 26 per cent.
The smallest increases during that period were in Nunavut (4.5 per cent) and Prince Edward Island, where the number of restricted firearms rose by only 13.3 per cent.
The number of prohibited firearms, which are grandfathered under the current gun laws, declined 1.1 per cent to 180,405 across the country; 41 per cent of those guns are in Ontario. The province or territory with the biggest drop from 2015 to 2018 was Nunavut, where the number of prohibited firearms declined 18.75 per cent to 26, while Quebec dropped 4.8 per cent.
However, the number of prohibited firearms increased 7.7 per cent in British Columbia — something Bernardo attributes to the province’s bustling film industry.
“The movie industry is still allowed to acquire prohibited types of firearms … How do you think they make all those crazy war movies?” Bernardo said. “All the police shows, all that other stuff.”
Bernardo said the rise in gun ownership is in part a result of the growing popularity of target shooting.
“Target shooting is a rapidly growing sport. Very, very popular with millennials. Many of the firearms that are used in target shooting, for example, all handguns, are registered firearms.”
Another firearm that is popular with sports shooters is the AR-15. Some gun owners worry the weapon will be reclassified from restricted to prohibited.
“When the rumour came out that Blair was going to ban the AR-15, there was a huge run on people buying them,” said Bernardo.
Bernardo estimates it will cost the government billions of dollars to buy back firearms and said the measures the government is considering target sport shooters — not criminals.
“The fact that anybody buys into this as a crime prevention thing is right up there with unicorn dust.”
Rathjen said the Liberal government hasn’t implemented measures it has passed to tighten the rules on guns. She said it’s too easy to get firearms licences, applicants aren’t screened thoroughly enough and refusal rates are low.
Rathjen said the rise in the number of restricted firearms is the result of a concerted effort by firearms groups to increase the number of guns in that category.
For example, she said, a number of the people who teach gun safety courses encourage people to get their restricted weapons licences at the same time as the basic licence to possess and acquire firearms.
“That certainly contributes to the increase in the ownership of restricted weapons,” Rathjen said.
Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at email@example.com