The Polytechnique Shooting and the Evolution of Gun Control

In the News

It is now 34 years since the École Polytechnique shooting in which 14 women were killed and another 14 injured. The Senate of Canada is currently studying Bill C-21, which would modify the Criminal Code and the Firearms Act to tighten gun controls. Here’s a short overview of how gun control has evolved in Canada since that tragic day in 1989.

The Firearms Act

In 1995, the federal government adopted the Firearms Act. This law obliged everyone who owns a firearm to obtain a licence and register their weapon. The possession of an unregistered firearm thus became a criminal offence.

This law created two gun registries:

  • The Canadian Firearms Registry for
    • prohibited weapons,
    • restricted use weapons, and
    • long-guns.
  • A registry for each province and territory of all gun licences that were issued or revoked. 

The abolition of the Long-gun Registry

The government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper viewed the registration of long-guns as costly and ineffective. In 2012, it adopted the Ending the Long-gun Registry Act, thus eliminating the requirement to register long-guns. The new law also provided for the destruction of all files regarding the registration of long-guns, which was contested by the Québec government all the way up to the Supreme Court of Canada, hoping to preserve that data. However, the Supreme Court rejected Québec’s request.

In 2018, the Québec government established the Québec Firearms Registration Service (SIAF) and the requirement for gun owners to register their guns with the SIAF. This obligation applies even if the person owned their gun prior to 2018, when the SIAF was created.

Bill C-21

With this proposed legislation, the federal government aims to strengthen the freeze on handguns decreed in October 2022. In announcing the bill, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated that the government aims to prevent anyone in Canada from buying, selling, transferring, or importing handguns. However, people who owned handguns before the freeze was decreed are allowed to keep them.

An amendment was added this spring to define what is a prohibited firearm. This amendment makes it illegal to import or manufacture these weapons, but does not prohibit firearms that are already on the market. Following a recent investigation by La Presse, concerning the legal sale of weapons between private individuals, the government has also pledged to ban large capacity magazines that can be modified easily, as well as military-type weapons not used for hunting.

Bill C-21 also contains provisions regarding the cancellation of gun licences of people charged with conjugal violence or criminal harassment.