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Firearm “Rights” in Canada: Law and History in the Debates over Gun Control

  • R. Blake Brown (a1)

This article explains why and how some Canadians have asserted a right to possess firearms from the late nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century. It demonstrates that several late-nineteenth-century politicians asserted a right to arms for self-defence purposes based on the English Bill of Rights. This “right” was forgotten until opponents of gun control dusted it off in the late twentieth century. Firearm owners began to assert such a right based upon the English Bill of Rights, William Blackstone, and the English common law. Their claims remained judicially untested until recent cases finally undermined such arguments.

Cet article explique pourquoi et comment certains Canadiens ont revendiqué le droit de posséder des armes depuis la fin du XIXe siècle jusqu’au début du XXIe siècle. Il explique comment divers politiciens de la fin du XIXe siècle ont revendiqué le droit du port d’armes à des fins d’auto-défense en vertu du Bill of Rights anglais. Ce « droit » fut oublié jusqu’à ce que des opposants du contrôle des armes le ressuscitent à la fin du XXe siècle. Les propriétaires d’armes à feu commencèrent à s’approprier ce droit en invoquant le Bill of Rights anglais, William Blackstone, et la Common Law. Leurs revendications demeurèrent non vérifiées en droit jusqu’à ce que de récentes affaires ne viennent saper leurs arguments.

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1 Terry Pedwell, “Is gun ownership a legal right in Canada?,” CBC online, (accessed 15 August 2016).

2 Conservative Party of Canada, Stand up for Canada (2006), 23.

3 Morgan, Cecilia, Creating Colonial Pasts: History, Memory, and Commemoration in Southern Ontario, 1860–1980 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015), 10. Also see Morgan, Cecilia, Commemorating Canada: History, Heritage, and Memory, 1850s–1990s (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016); Francis, Daniel, National Dreams: Myth, Memory, and Canadian History (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1997); O’G. Anderson, Benedict R., Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London: Verso, 2006).

4 Bill of Rights, 1689, 1 Will & Mary, sess 2, c 2.

5 William Blackstone, as quoted in Lois G. Schwoerer, “To Hold and Bear Arms: The English Perspective,” in The Second Amendment in Law and History: Historians and Constitutional Scholars on the Right to Bear Arms, ed. Carl T. Bogus (New York: New Press, 2000), 224.

6 Lee Malcolm, Joyce, To Keep and Bear Arms: The Origins of an Anglo-American Right (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994); Lee Malcolm, Joyce, Guns and Violence: The English Experience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).

7 Schwoerer, “To Hold and Bear Arms,” 216–219. Also see Schwoerer, Lois G., Gun Culture in Early Modern England (Charlottesville, Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 2016), 156170.

8 Marquis, Greg, “In Defence of Liberty: 17th-Century England and 19th-Century Maritime Political Culture,” University of New Brunswick Law Journal 42 (1993): 6994 ; Blaine Baker, G., “Legal Education in Upper Canada, 1785–1889: The Law Society as Educator,” in Essays in the History of Canadian Law, ed. Flaherty, David H. (Toronto: Osgoode Society, 1983), 2:94 ; Girard, Philip, Lawyers and Legal Culture in British North America: Beamish Murdoch of Halifax (Toronto: University of Toronto Press and the Osgoode Society, 2011), 3941 ; Morin, Michel, “Blackstone and the Birth of Quebec’s Distinct Legal Culture, 1765–1867,” in Re-Interpreting Blackstone’s Commentaries: A Seminal Text in National and International Contexts, ed. Prest, Wilfrid (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 119 ; Philip Girard, “‘Of Institutes and Treaties’: Blackstone’s Commentaries, Kent’s Commentaries and Murdoch’s Epitome of the Laws of Nova Scotia,” in Law Books in Action: Essays on the Anglo-American Legal Treatise, ed. Angela Fernandez and Markus D. Dubber (Portland: Hart Publishing, 2012), 43–62.

9 Debates, House of Commons (5 June 1872), 997.

10 An Act respecting the administration of justice, and other matters, in the North-West Territories, SC 1885, c 51, s 14.

11 Debates, House of Commons (2 July 1885), 3000, 3001.

12 Kimball, Bruce A., The Inception of Modern Professional Education: C. C. Langdell, 1826–1906 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2009); Kimball, Bruce A., “The Proliferation of Case Method Teaching in American Law Schools: Mr. Langdell’s Emblematic ‘Abomination,’ 1890–1915,” History of Education Quarterly 46 (2006): 192240.

13 An Act to amend the Criminal Code, SC 1919, c 46, s 2; An Act to amend the Criminal Code, SC 1919, c 12.

14 Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1968–69, SC 1968–1969, c 38, s 6.

15 Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1977, SC 1977, c 53. For overviews of the history of Canadian gun control, see Blake Brown, R., Arming and Disarming: A History of Gun Control in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press and the Osgoode Society, 2012); Pelletier, Gérald, “Le Code criminel canadien, 1892–1939: le contrôle des armes á feu,” Crimes, Histoire & Sociétés 6 (2002): 5179 ; Samuel A. Bottomley, “Parliament, Politics and Policy: Gun Control in Canada, 1867–2003” (PhD diss., Carleton University, 2004).

16 An Act to amend the Criminal Code and the Customs Tariff in consequence thereof, SC 1991, c 40; Rathjen, Heidi and Montpetit, Charles, December 6: From the Montreal Massacre to Gun Control: The Inside Story (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1999).

17 Firearms Act, SC 1995, c 39.

18 Brown, Arming and Disarming, chapters 5 and 6.

19 Ending the Long-gun Registry Act, SC 2012, c 6.

20 Quebec (Attorney General) v Canada (Attorney General), [2015] 1 SCR 693.

21 Common Sense Firearms Licensing Act, SC 2015, c 27; Ian Peach, “The Supreme Court of Canada Long-Gun Registry Decision: The Constitutional Question Behind an Intergovernmental Relations Failure,” Constitutional Forum 24:1 (2015): 1–6; “Quebec will soon have its firearm registry,” Montreal Gazette, 9 June 2016.

22 Clément, Dominique, Human Rights in Canada: A History (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2016); Clément, Dominique, Canada’s Rights Revolution: Social Movements and Social Change, 1937–1982 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008); MacLennan, Christopher, Toward the Charter: Canadians and the Demand for a National Bill of Rights, 1929–1960 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003).

23 Brown, Arming and Disarming, 185–87.

24 F.L. (Ted) Morton, “How the Firearms Act (Bill C-68) Violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” unpublished paper. The paper can be found on various websites. For example, a copy can be found on the website of the Canadian Shooting Sports Association: (accessed 10 March 2017).

25 Morton, F.L., Morgentaler v Borowski: Abortion, the Charter and the Courts (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1992); Morton, F.L. and Knopff, Rainer, The Charter Revolution and the Court Party (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2000).

26 British North America Act, 1867, 30–31 Vict., c 3 (U.K.).

27 Morton, “How the Firearms Act (Bill C-68) Violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” 19, 20.

28 Some gun organizations made similar claims. The Canadian Shooting Sports Association, for example, claimed that the “right to bear arms is not mentioned in recent documents such as the Constitution or Charter because it’s already stated elsewhere in Canadian law.” The Canadian right came “from exactly the same place as the American one—English Common Law, the English Bill of Rights 1689, the writings of Sir William Blackstone in his Commentaries on English Law, and others.” These laws “became part of Canadian law on our Confederation in 1867 with the affirmation of the British North America (BNA) Act.” Canadian Shooting Sports Association, (accessed 16 August 2016).

29 Debates, House of Commons (3 October 1996), 5072.

30 Debates, House of Commons (7 October 1996), 5175.

31 Debates, House of Commons (31 March 2003), 4930.

32 Canadian Shooting Sports Association, News Release, “The Canadian Shooting Sports Association Welcomes Former Member of Parliament Garry Breitkreuz to the CSSA Board of Directors (23 November 2015), (accessed 16 August 2016).

33 Reference re Firearms Act, [2000] 1 SCR 783.

34 Gibson, Dale, “The Firearms Reference in the Alberta Court of Appeal,” Alberta Law Review 37 (1999): 1071–93; Saywell, John T., The Lawmakers: Judicial Power and the Shaping of Canadian Federalism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press and the Osgoode Society, 2002), 287–88.

35 R v Thompson, [1987] O.J. No. 565.

36 R v Simmermon, [1996] A.J. No. 76 at para. 23.

37 R v Hasselwander [1993] 2 SCR 398 at 414.

38 R v Wiles, 3 (2005) SCR 895 at 901.

39 This organization has been renamed the Canadian Unlicensed Firearms Owners Association.

40 Louise Elliott, “Two arrested in gun-law uproar,” Toronto Star, 2 January 2003, A7; Jane Taber and Jill Mahoney, “Ottawa protest and arrests herald federal gun laws,” Globe and Mail, 2 January 2003; Tim Harper, “Halt gun registry: Ontario,” Toronto Star, 3 January 2003, A6.

41 Edward Hudson, “We have a duty TO DISOBEY,” Winnipeg Free Press, 2 March 2003, B4.

42 Cathy Von Kintzel, “Anti-registration gun owners defy law, like to tell about it,” Chronicle-Herald, 18 July 2003, A3. Also see Michael Staples, “Gun owners decry registration at legislature,” Fredericton Daily Gleaner, 16 July 2003, A4.

43 Criminal Code, RSC 1985, c C-46, s 117.03.

44 Tonda MacCharles, “Debate over gun control rages on,” Toronto Star, 21 August 2004, H1.

45 The decision of the Provincial Court can be found on the website of the Canadian Unlicensed Firearms Owners Association. See (accessed 16 August 2016).

46 For a summary of his appeals of the forfeiture order see Hudson v Canada (Attorney General), [2007] SKQB 455 (CanLII) at para 4.

47 Hudson v Canada (Attorney General), [2007] SKQB 455 (CanLII) at para 5.

48 Ibid at para 6.

49 Ibid at para 8.

50 R v Wiles, 3 (2005) SCR 895 at 901.

51 Hudson v Canada (Attorney General), [2007] SKQB 455 (CanLII) at para 15.

52 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Part I of the Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (UK), 1982, c 11, s 7.

53 Hudson v Canada (Attorney General), [2007] SKQB 455 (CanLII) at para 27.

54 Hudson v Canada (Attorney General), 2009 SKCA 108 (CanLII) at para 17.

55 Ibid at para 21.

56 Ibid at para 21.

57 Ibid. at para 22.

58 Edward Burke Hudson v Attorney General of Canada, 2010 CanLII 3413 (SCC).

59 Hudson v Canada (Attorney General), 2011 SKQB 18 (CanLII) at para 1.

60 Ibid at para 11.

61 Ibid at para 12.

62 Ibid.

63 Ibid at para 16.

64 Hudson v Canada (Attorney General), 2011 SKCA 112 (CanLII); Edward Burke Hudson v Attorney General of Canada, 2012 CanLII 16819 (SCC).

65 This and the following paragraph rely on Somerset, A.J., Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun (Windsor, ON: Biblioasis, 2015), 119142.

66 “Gunsmith looking to fight gun control law gets charged,” Evening News (New Glasgow), 24 September 2004, B9.

67 Bryan Meadows, “Gun law battle has backing,” Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal, 30 September 2004; “Anti-gun registry activist speaking here,” Times-Herald (Moose Jaw), 15 February 2005, 3; “Man challenging Firearms Act anxious to fight,” Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal, 10 September 2006.

69 Notice of Application and Constitutional Issues, R v William Bruce Montague, Superior Court of Justice (North Region) (30 April 2006); “Ontario gunsmith planning to challenge Firearms Act,” Lethbridge Herald, 15 March 2006, A10.

70 R v Montague, 2007 CanLII 51171 at para 7 (ON SC).

71 Ibid at para 10 (ON SC).

72 Ibid at para 15 (ON SC).

73 Ibid at para 28 (ON SC).

74 Ibid at para 29 (ON SC).

75 Ibid at para 33 (ON SC).

76 Ibid at para 33 (ON SC).

77 “Area man gets 18 months for firearm offences,” Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal, 18 March 2008.

78 Chris McGarry, “Opposition to law supported,” Journal-Pioneer (Summerside), 26 January 2010, A4.

79 “Nov 6: Ontario Superior Court Ruling on Montague Charter Challenge,” (accessed 15 August 2016).

80 “Ont. man vows to take constitutional challenge of firearms act to top court,” Canadian Press, 7 November 2007.

81 R v Montague, 2010 ONCA 141 (CanLII) at para 3.

82 Ibid at para 12.

83 Ibid at para 12.

84 Ibid at para 13.

85 Ibid at para 14.

86 Ibid at para 16.

87 Ibid at para 18.

88 Ibid at para 19.

89 Ibid at para 20.

90 Montague v Her Majesty the Queen, 2010 CanLII 52718 (SCC).

91 RSC 1985, c C-46, s 491; SC 1991, c 40, s 30; SC 1995, c 39, s 152.

92 The Queen v Montague, 2012 ONSC 2300 (CanLII) at para 18.

93 Ibid at para 42.

94 R v Montague, 2014 ONCA 439 (CanLII); William Bruce Montague, et al. v Her Majesty the Queen, 2014 CanLII 68704 (SCC).

95 Civil Remedies Act, S.O. 2001, c 28; Karen Selick, “Meet Ontario’s version of Russia’s Pussy Riot travesty,” Winnipeg Free Press, 8 September 2012, A15; Murray J. Martin, “Gun laws’ persecution is cruel and unusual punishment,” Whitehorse Daily Star, 29 November 2013, 42; Marni Soupcoff, “Quietly sacrificing for liberty,” National Post, 21 May 2014; Michele Mandel, “Firearms dealer must forfeit $100,000 in guns, ammo,” Toronto Sun, 3 June 2014; Joseph Brean, “First they took his guns, now the government wants firearms law protester’s house too,” National Post, 3 June 2014; Marni Soupcoff, “Ontario’s civil-forfeiture racket,” National Post, 21 August 2014; Karen Selick, “Civil forfeiture laws a threat to citizens’ property rights,” Fredericton Daily Gleaner, 29 November 2014, A13; Lorne Gunter, “Gun owners are second-class citizens,” Edmonton Sun, 17 February 2015; Marni Soupcoff, “The Supreme Court’s funny priorities,” National Post, 20 April 2015.

96 Lorne Gunter, “Ontario gun owners long ordeal finally over,” Toronto Sun, 13 August 2016; Marni Soupcoff, “Justice finally prevails for Bruce and Donna Montague,” National Post, 18 August 2016.

97 A.J. Somerset, Twitter post, February 6, 2017, 6:21 a.m.,; Somerset, Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun.

99 Ibid.

100 Canadian Unregistered Firearms Owners Association, Edward B. Hudson, “Armes for Their Defense; An Inherited, Historical, Canadian Right,” (accessed 15 August 2016);Canadian Shooting Sports Association, “CSSA Commentary: Media Attacks Blaney for Daring to say Gun ‘Right’,” (accessed 15 August 2016).

102 National Firearms Association, media release, “Victory in Quebec” (27 June 2013), (accessed 10 March 2017).

103 National Firearms Association, press release, “Supreme Court of Canada Denies Quebec’s demand for the Long Gun Registry Records,” (accessed 10 March 2017). Also see Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights, “Mission and Vision,” (accessed 15 August 2016).

104 A Right to Arms: A John Robson Documentary, (accessed 10 March 2017).

105 John Robson, “Armed Canadians: A Brief History,” Dorchester Review 6:2 (2016), 57. Also see John Robson, “The State Doesn’t Trust You,” National Post, 16 November 2015. For discussions of Robson’s work see R. Blake Brown, “The ‘Right’ to Bear Arms in Canada,” Active History, 6 February 2017, (accessed 6 March 2017); and John Robson and R. Blake Brown, “Gun Rights in Canada: An Exchange,” Active History, 6 March 2017, (accessed 6 March 2017).

106 Champion, C.P., The Strange Demise of British Canada: The Liberals and Canadian Nationalism, 1964–1968 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010); Buckner, Phillip, “Canada and the End of Empire, 1939–1982,” in Canada and the British Empire, ed. Buckner, Phillip (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 107126.

* An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Firearms and the Common Law Tradition symposium hosted by the Aspen Institute in Washington, DC, in September 2016 and the British Association for Canadian Studies annual meeting in April 2017. The author wishes to thank the Social Science and Humanities Research Council for supporting this research and Breanna Denton for her able work as a research assistant.

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Canadian Journal of Law and Society / La Revue Canadienne Droit et Société
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