Edmonton

Gun ownership laws in Canada are about to change. Here's what is happening in Alberta

Many Alberta gun owners have been left scrambling to buy or sell their handguns in the wake of proposed legislation as processing times for transfers balloon. Here is what Alberta is doing about it.

Bill C-21 would make sweeping changes to gun laws, including a freeze on handguns

Gun shop owners have reported a surge in sales since the announcement of federal legislation that would freeze the sale, purchase or transfer of handguns in Canada. (Robert Short/CBC)

Proposed federal legislation looking to expand gun control in Canada has caused much consternation for gun owners and those in the business of selling firearms.

Known as Bill C-21, the legislation would make sweeping changes to gun ownership including prohibiting the sale of restricted firearms such as handguns. Further promised regulatory amendments look to limit all long-gun magazines to a maximum of five rounds.

The bill was introduced in the spring, has passed second reading and awaits committee study. In August, the federal government instituted an interim ban on handgun imports until a permanent freeze is passed in Parliament.

Since then, the handgun market has been hopping in Alberta, with  many gun owners scrambling to buy or sell in the face of growing processing times for transfers — that is, the legal movement of a firearm from one owner to another.

Let's take a look at the current process. 

How do you buy a handgun in Alberta?

There are three types of firearms classifications in Canada, each with their own requirements:

  • Non-restricted: typically any rifle or shotgun.
  • Restricted: typically handguns, must be registered
  • Prohibited: meeting certain criteria or listed as such, must be registered. Ownership is usually only available through specific "grandfathering" criteria.

The process to buy a handgun in Alberta is the same in most of Canada. 

Prospective gun owners need to get a Possession and Acquisition Licence (PAL) through the RCMP, after completing the Canadian Firearms Safety Course. A separate Canadian Restricted Firearms Safety Course is required for restricted firearms. 

Buying and selling handguns, whether between businesses or individuals, requires the transfer to be processed by the RCMP and the jurisdiction's chief firearms officer. Only after this is complete can a buyer take physical possession.

Buyers also need to get a transit permit to legally move a restricted or prohibited firearm to locations other than a shooting range or the firearm's place of storage. 

Alberta has 326,709 PALs, the third-highest number among all provinces and territories, behind Ontario (621,039) and Quebec (486,316), according to a 2020 firearms report from the RCMP

There are around 150,000 restricted PALs in the province, second only to Ontario's 195,000.

Where are buyers running into issues?

Processing of PAL applications and transfers is mostly done at the Canada Firearms Centre in Miramichi, N.B. 

James Bachynsky, president of the Calgary Shooting Centre's firing range and retail operation, said transfers for a business in Alberta would typically be completed in two business days. 

But Bachysnky said that process is now taking about two months after an onslaught of "panic buying" in June.

"We still have ... a portion of those that still haven't been approved yet. But I would say the majority have," he said.

Identifying information, including name, address, licence number and firearm information, is collected as part of a transfer application. 

Retailers, who typically deal with the process and must provide a business licence and identification number, have a private phone line and online portal to initiate a transfer.

For person-to-person sales, there is only a phone option, meaning transfers can take even longer.

"I've had customers come in who said they've been on the phone 50, 60 times and still have not got through to talk to someone," said Chris Gubersky, owner of the retailer P&D Enterprises in Edmonton.

What has Alberta done?

Last August, the province introduced the position of Alberta Chief Firearms Officer to administer federal firearms legislation and advocate on behalf of Alberta gun owners. 

Teri Bryant has been critical of the proposed federal legislation, saying the handgun sales ban is an infringement on property rights.

Her office takes on some firearms processing work but the vast majority is still done in New Brunswick — about 95 per cent, according to Bryant. She said the centre out east is understaffed.

To help gun owners with lengthy processing times, the Alberta government announced last week it will allocate an additional $700,000 to immediately start hiring 40 additional positions for the office of the ACFO, to help relieve some of the backlog. 

"We're going to be continuing to step that up in order to do our very best to make sure that Albertans property rights are respected," Bryant said.

Another $7 million next year and $5.2 million the year following will also be allocated to province's chief firearms officer for this hiring.

Teri Bryant, Alberta's chief firearms officer, said during a news availability last week that ensuring transfers are completed is a priority for her office. (Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)

CBC News asked the RCMP for data on PAL and transfer requests in process as well as information pertaining to the backlog and its causes.

A spokesperson said a response would require two weeks, in part due to protocols enacted around the official mourning period for the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

A spokesperson for Bryant's office said there are around 8,700 PAL applications in processing for Albertans, of which 6,674 are at the central processing site in New Brunswick. 

There are around 12,500 ownership transfer requests in process. Transfers with no concerns are processed in Miramichi; if there are any public safety concerns or issues with the licence holder, the file is passed to the ACFO for further review.

What happens next?

Gubersky said with Parliament sitting at the end of September, the expansion of the ACFO is too late.

"If it's coming to an end, it's coming to an end."

He said handgun inventory has been selling quickly — he no longer has any — but its elimination will mean a loss of about 30 per cent of his business at minimum.

Bachynsky predicts an even greater number of owners will be looking to sell as collectors find themselves with property that is essentially becoming worthless.

He says the future of his indoor shooting range will be severely impacted.

"What we will see over a period of time is people getting out of the sport for whatever reason, they're just going to lose their property," Bachynsky said.

"And then there's no new blood coming in."

Both Gubersky and Bachynsky said they have not received direction whether the legislation passing would mean the end of transfers in process.

The text of the bill includes transitional provisions, stating the ban on issuing registration certificates will not affect applications submitted before the legislation comes into effect.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stephen Cook

Reporter

Stephen Cook is a reporter with CBC Edmonton. He has covered stories on a wide range of topics with a focus on policy, politics, post-secondary education and labour. You can reach him via email at stephen.cook@cbc.ca.

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