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Here's how gun control works in Canada

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

The shooting at the National War Memorial and Parliament building in Ottawa, Canada, Wednesday has led to considerable discussion of the country's gun laws — albeit, oddly enough, mostly in US publications rather than Canadian ones.

Canada's laws are meaningfully stricter than those in the US. To wit:

  • All gun owners have to be licensed, and all handguns and most semiautomatic weapons have to be registered.
  • Handguns can't be carried out of the home, either concealed or openly, except with a specific license, which is usually only given to people who need guns for work.
  • Licenses require training in gun safety and an extensive background check.
  • Guns have to be kept locked and unloaded.

Here's a more detailed rundown of how Canada and the US's gun control regimes differ. Much of the information on Canada comes from the Library of Congress's Tariq Ahmad, whose analysis is worth reading in full.

Legal v. illegal guns

handgun canada

Handgun regulations are much stricter in Canada. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

Canada: Guns are classified into three categories:

  • Non-restricted: regular shotguns and rifles, and some military-style rifles and shotguns.
  • Prohibited: most handguns that either have a short (less than 105 milimeters) barrel or are 32 or 25 caliber, full automatic weapons, guns with sawed-off barrels, and certain military rifles like the AK-47.
  • Restricted: non-prohibited handguns, some semi-automatic rifles, and certain non-semi rifles as well.

All three kinds of guns can be purchased and owned legally (even "prohibited" ones) but the requirements for owning restricted and prohibited guns are much, much stricter, as elaborated in the licensing and carry sections to follow.

United States: Fully automatic weapons are legal, but only if made before 1986; as a result, manufacturing new automatic weapons for civilian use is effectively illegal. Purchasing automatic weapons requires "submitting fingerprints and photographs to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), going through an FBI criminal background check, and paying a $200 tax, among other requirements"; all automatic weapons must be registered with the ATF, which also generally does not allow interstate sales.

Owning semi-automatic and non-automatic guns is generally legal. Seven states and the District of Columbia ban assault weapons, eight and DC ban high-capacity magazines, California and DC ban 50 caliber rifles, and LA, Oakland, and San Francisco all ban "ultra-compact" handguns. DC formerly banned handguns before the Supreme Court ruled that ban unconstitutional, and a national assault weapons ban lapsed in 2004.

Gun licensing


Don't fill out your gun license with a red pencil. (Shutterstock)

Canada: All people need a license to own or buy firearms or ammunition. Those applying for a license to own a non-restricted firearm must pass a series of firearms safety tests, and those applying for licensing covering restricted or prohibited firearms must pass another set of tests as well. One must be 18 to get a license, though minors aged 12-17 can possess nonrestricted weapons if a licensed adult is responsible for them.

Generally, restricted and prohibited firearms cannot be carried either concealed or openly, absent a license usually issued when someone needs such weapons for their job. They must be kept in the home and cannot be transported outside it except under very specific circumstances, such as for target practice.

Prohibited weapons are generally only allowed if the person "had one registered in their name when it became prohibited, and they have continuously held a valid registration certificate for that type of prohibited firearm from December 1, 1998, onward" and can only be acquired if they are "in the same categories as the ones currently registered to them, and only if the firearms they wish to acquire were registered in Canada on December 1, 1998."

United States: You don't need a license to own any kind of gun in most states. Massachusetts and Illinois require all firearm owners to obtain a "license to own" their guns, while California, Connecticut, Hawaii, and New Jersey require all prospective gun owners to obtain "permits to purchase" before buying guns. Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, North Carolina, and Rhode Island require permits to purchase handguns, and New York requires a license to own handguns. DC requires all guns to be registered, which functions as a licensing requirement.

California, Connecticut, DC, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island require safety training or testing for licensing, while Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, and North Carolina don't. Hawaii requires it for handgun applicants but not rifle or shotgun owners. States also vary in how many guns you're allowed to buy with a permit to purchase.


Canada: All restricted and prohibited firearms must be registered with Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Before 2012, all firearms had to be registered, but legislation from Stephen Harper's government got rid of the requirement for non-restricted weapons. Quebec is fighting to be able to preserve its own registry.

United States: Most states have no registration requirements for any type of gun. DC and Hawaii require the registration of all firearms, and New York requires the registration of handguns; DC's registration process involves extensive screening and background checks, so it doubles as a licensing process of sorts. California requires new residents to report their firearms, while Maryland requires new residents to report any handguns and assault weapons they own. Six states require the registration of assault weapons, assault pistols, and 50 caliber rifles that were grandfathered in before those states' bans. Meanwhile, eight states specifically ban the establishment of firearm registries.

Background checks

background check

Shutterstock has an impressive collection of stock photos of forms. (Shutterstock)

Canada: Applicants for gun licenses "must pass background checks which consider criminal, mental, addiction and domestic violence records." In addition to criminal checks, this involves establishing that they were not treated for a mental illness "associated with violence or threatened or attempted violence," or had a "history of behavior that includes violence or threatened or attempted violence on the part of the person against any person," within the past five years. Additionally, "third party character references for each gun license applicant are required."

United States: Federally licensed gun dealers have to conduct background checks, but that requirement has many holes in it. Reporting on criminal, mental health, drug, and domestic violence records is incomplete, and sales by unlicensed sellers don't require background checks.

21 states conduct their own background checks for at least some types of guns, which tend to be more thorough and have more data to draw upon. Seven states require background checks for all sales by unlicensed sellers, with another two requiring them for sales of handguns; eight states require permits for purchasers who buy from unlicensed sellers, at least for some guns, which function as a background check requirement for those purchases. Colorado, Connecticut, New York, and Oregon require background checks at gun shows as well; the former three simply require background checks regardless of purchase type.

Concealed carry

Canada: Restricted or prohibited firearms generally can't be carried either concealed or openly. In rare cases, one can get a permit "for use in connection with his or her lawful profession or occupation," such as for work in wilderness areas with dangerous wild animals, or in defending armored cars with cash. In very rare occasions they are issued for "protection of life," usually when there is a "an active police file and a verifiable threat as well as police confirmation that they cannot provide adequate protection for that person."

Since most concealed and open carrying involves handguns, and all handguns are either restricted or prohibited, this effectively outlaws most concealed carrying by most people.

United States: The federal government guarantees the right of qualified police officers, including retired ones, to carry concealed weapons. Four states allow people to carry concealed weapons without a permit, 37 require the issuance of permits to qualified people, and 9 give authorities wide discretion in deciding who to grant permits to. No state bans concealed carry entirely; DC's ban was struck down by a federal court. States vary on where specifically concealed carry is allowed, and some require applicants to give a reason for why they need to carry a concealed weapon.

Six states and DC ban open carry of guns in public, thirteen require a permit to do so, and 31 allow open carry without any license or permit at all.

Gun safety requirements

gun lock

Good start, but you also need to lock this gun in a container or room to comply with Canadian law on handguns. (Shutterstock)

Canada: Non-restricted weapons must be stored with a trigger or cable lock or locked in a room, compartment, or container that is "difficult to break into." Restricted and prohibited weapons must be both trigger/cable locked and locked in a larger room or container, or else locked in a "vault, safe or room that was built or modified specifically to store firearms safely." For automatic weapons, any removable bolts must be removed. All guns must be unloaded when stored or transported, and put in a lockable compartment (if available) when left unattended in a car.

United States: Federal law requires licensed sellers to provide secure storage or safety devices with any handguns they sell or transfer. 11 states have additional requirements; Massachusetts is the only one to require that firearms always be kept locked. 28 states and DC have laws regulating children's access to firearms, ranging from ones merely banning adults from directly providing certain types of firearms to minors, to ones imposing criminal liability when a child "is likely to" or "may" gain access to a firearm because of negligent storage.

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