Firearms group launches charter challenge of weapons ban as Blair clarifies rules for shotguns

A firearms rights group is launching a constitutional challenge of the government's ban on 'assault-style' weapons, saying the regulatory change threatens a fundamental charter right.

Legal opinion suggested some 10, 12 gauge shotguns could now be banned — Ottawa says that isn't true

A rifle owner checks the sight of his rifle at a hunting camp property in rural Ontario. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

A firearms rights group is launching a constitutional challenge of the government's ban on 'assault-style' weapons, saying the regulatory change threatens a fundamental charter right.

The government banned some 1,500 makes and models of firearms last Friday. The Canadian Coalition for Firearms Rights (CCFR) — citing the Charter of Rights guarantee under section 7 of the right to "life, liberty and security of the person" — said Thursday that prohibition is "fundamentally unjust" because it deprives them of their property.

The CCFR said only litigation can stop the government's "abusive process." It said it has retained a Calgary-based lawyer who specializes in constitutional challenges.

"The government, in an entirely arbitrary and irrational way, has created legislation that will deprive us of our property and our freedom to live as we wish, on pains of incarceration for failing to comply," said Rod Giltaca, CEO and executive director of the CCFR. 

The group acknowledged it has "no guarantee of a win," given past legal rulings by the country's top court on firearms. In the 1993 R v. Hasselwander case, the court upheld the constitutionality of the firearms regime which banned automatic firearms.

"Canadians, unlike Americans, do not have a constitutional right to bear arms. Indeed, most Canadians prefer the peace of mind and sense of security derived from the knowledge that the possession of automatic weapons is prohibited," the court said.

Opposition to the firearms ban has been fierce in some circles. A parliamentary e-petition calling on the prime minister to scrap the "firearms confiscation regime" collected more than 115,000 signatures in just over 24 hours. The petition is sponsored by Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner.

The constitutional challenge comes a day after Public Safety Minister Bill Blair clarified the rules on shotguns in response to firearms owners flagging what they saw as a gap in the law that could lead to legal troubles for hunters.

Blair said licensed firearm owners will still be allowed to own 10 and 12 gauge shotguns — even if the removal of a 'choke' means the bore diameter of the firearm exceeds 20 mm.

Another firearms rights group, the Canadian Sports Shooting Association, published a legal opinion that suggested the firearms ban enacted last Friday could prohibit popular hunting firearms based on the new size requirements.

An estimated 2 million of these sorts of shotguns are in circulation in Canada.

The cabinet order prohibited any firearm with a bore diameter of 20 mm or greater — other than one designed exclusively for the purpose of neutralizing explosive devices — meaning Canadians cannot legally use, buy or import such weapons as of May 1.

The bore is the inner diameter of a firearm's barrel.

The Canadian Sports Shooting Association's legal opinion, drafted by Thornhill, Ont. lawyer Edward Burlew, said the removal of a choke — a device added to a firearm to shape how a shot spreads after the trigger is pulled — could make the bore larger than 20 mm.

A firearms owner measures the bore diameter of a shotgun that has an adjustable choke. (CBC News)

"Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and minister Bill Blair looked Canadian gun owners in the eye last Friday and said they would not take guns suitable for hunting away from us. Minister Blair is either too inept to comprehend the scope of his regulation or he lied to the government and Canadians," the CSSA said after releasing the legal opinion.

The CSSA then cautioned retailers against selling these firearms to stay on the right side of the law.

But the government said the legal opinion doesn't reflect how police will be interpreting the new prohibitions. "The expert opinion is wrong," Blair said in the Commons Tuesday.

A spokesperson for Blair confirmed Wednesday that the choke will not be considered when measuring a firearm's bore diameter.

"The regulation introduced on May 1 does not prohibit 10 and 12 gauge shotguns. The regulation for 10 and 12 gauge is based on their standard size, both under 20 mm," the spokesperson said.

"In accordance with acceptable firearms industry standards, the definition for bore diameter explicitly states that is after the chamber, but before the choke in shotguns.  Therefore, if the measurement is taken at any other location, it is not a factor that is being considered under amendment 95 of the Regulations."

But the minister's message wasn't well received by the Canadian Sporting Arms and Ammunition Association (CSAAA)

The group said "sophisticated manufacturers and distributors all over the world" are still concerned that the new regulations could render some shotguns prohibited, despite those reassurances from Blair.

"We are not satisfied with a tweet from the minister that everything is OK as the basis for our whole industry's future. There is lots of precedent in [Canadian] law and technical language in legal government documents our industry uses every day that conflicts with this tweeted response," Alison de Groot, the managing director of the CSAAA, told CBC.

"We are a $5.9 billion industry in Canada supporting 48,000 full time equivalent jobs. "So no, a Trump-like tweet is not going to cover it."


John Paul Tasker

Senior reporter

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now