Getting your Gun License in Canada – Possession & Acquisition

Getting your Gun License in Canada – Possession & Acquisition

One of the interesting things about Canada’s culture is that guns are often not spoken of openly, despite being legal, and in fairly wide circulation.  Ownership varies dramatically by province, but as a national average is around 15%.  Although most Canadians at least recognize a licensing program exists, the fact is that an astonishing number (particularly among politicians and the media…) have no real idea how it works, or how to become licensed.  Unfortunately this can, and does, lead to a number of misconceptions among both firearms enthusiasts as well as the public at large.  In order to try and dispel some of the mystery surrounding Canada’s firearms licensing system, I’ve put this article together to cover some of the basics of the Possession & Acquisition license (PAL).

Unlike many other countries that employ a state or provincial firearms system, Canada’s is federal, meaning it applies equally and consistently across the entire country.  This serves to help streamline and simply things as what’s legal in one province is essentially legal in any province.  Canada’s firearms licensing process is also relatively fast; in fact, citizens can obtain a firearms license in about 1/6th the time it takes to get a drivers license.  It’s also quite thorough, including a standardized testing process and mandatory background check.

Another popular misconception about our licensing system is that there is just one license, when in fact there are several different types.  The most basic license is the Possession Only License, or ‘POL’.  This license is fairly rare, but essentially permits the holder to possess firearms already in their possession, as well as to purchase or possess ammunition.  The holder of a POL is, however, limited only to the firearms they already own, and may not acquire more.  The second type of license, and by far the most common, is the Possession and Acquisition License, or ‘PAL’.  A PAL permits the license holder to not only possess existing firearms and ammunition, but also to acquire new firearms.

It’s important to note that in addition to the types of licenses, the Canadian Firearms Program also designates every type of gun with a class.  Classes are broken down into three categories including:

  • Non-Restricted – Rifles or shotguns with a barrel length of 18.5″ or longer
  • Restricted – Rifles with a barrel length less than 18.5″ or handguns with a barrel length of 4.2″ or longer
  • Prohibited – Handguns with a barrel length of less than 4.2″, fully-automatic firearms, and anything specifically designated prohibited by name

The PAL license permits holders to possess and acquire non-restricted class firearms.

So how does a Canadian qualify for a firearms license? 

There are only a few requirements to obtain a firearms license:

  • 18+ years of age (exceptions can be made for citizens under 18 who hunt to sustain themselves or their family)
  • Complete the Canadian Firearms Safety Course (CFSC)
  • OR challenge the CFSC test

What disqualifies a Canadian from obtaining a firearms license? 

The Canadian Firearms Program is designed very much with public safety in mind; unlike the United States which has a constitutional right to bear arms, Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not guarantee such a provision.  As such, there are some situations in which a citizen may be denied a license, including:

  • Documented mental illness
  • Convictions for harassment or violent crime
  • Violations of the Controlled Substances Act
  • Violations of the Firearms Act (imagine that)

Outside these very narrow (and quite reasonable) exceptions, Canadians generally have little difficulty qualifying for a license.  With that in mind, let’s move on to the testing process.  Most citizens will generally opt to attend the optional CFSC training program.  This training will be run over a series of weeknights or a single weekend, and consists of a standardized lesson plan designed to prep attendees for the final exam.  Each program is locally administered by a certified instructor; prices can vary but as of this article’s publication date the cap in Ontario is $150 for the training program or $40 to challenge the test.

The program content is fairly diverse, ranging from the history and evolution of firearms to safety, ammunition, actions, maintenance, storage, transportation and legal responsibilities.  Some of it is more interesting than other parts, but on the whole it’s fairly practical knowledge imparted at a reasonable pace.  Attendees will have many opportunities to handle and interact with firearms and training ammunition in order practice for the test.

The actual examination consists of two tests, including a written, and a practical.  The written portion is multiple choice and contains a fairly even mix of what was covered in class.  The practical test is entirely hands-on, and typically requires the attendee to demonstrate basic knowledge of different firearms actions, carrying and handling techniques.  As an aside, I was quite impressed with the practical portion, and felt it did an excellent job of determining who was and wasn’t ready for the responsibility of firearms ownership.  If you can’t pass the test, it’s definitely in your best interest (and everyone else’s, for that matter) that you practice and try again.

Once the examination is complete, successful students will be issued with an application form.  Graduates simply mail it in with a passport photo and wait four to six weeks.  During this time, the CFP will conduct a background check, and potentially contact character references to confirm there are no concerns about the citizen in question, after which they will be issued their license.

Once a Canadian has received their PAL, they are now legally entitled to acquire and possess ammunition as well as non-restricted class firearms.  An additional training program/test can then be undertaken to qualify for the Restricted Possession and Acquisition license (‘RPAL’), which allows for the purchase of restricted firearms, and will be addressed in a future article.

Obviously different people will hold different opinions on gun control and licensing, but for what it’s worth I’m quite satisfied with the Non-Restricted class portion of Canada’s Possession and Acquisition Licensing program.  No system is perfect of course, but it’s reasonably fast to complete, inexpensive, and seems to do a solid job of preventing easy access to firearms by the mentally ill and criminally-inclined.

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