As one of the few lawyers in Canada specializing in firearms law, I am quite often asked legal questions about firearms law in the various firearm Facebook groups in which I participate, including the one for Canada’s National Firearms Association. The question I get asked the most often is “where can I shoot my restricted firearms?” or some variation of that question. When I give my answer, the next question is usually something like “where can I find a source that says this?”, to which my answer is “you can’t really” because the answer depends on a legal analysis of a number of different sources. I present the analysis here.
The analysis starts with the basic premise that unless something is made illegal by some law, it is legal. In other words, with few exceptions, one does not need to look to a law to make something legal or allowed but rather to see what is not legal or allowed. So it is legal to discharge firearms anywhere at any time unless there is some law preventing it (and assuming you are in lawful possession of that firearm — a subject for a different day). From the perspective of federal law (which applies throughout Canada), the relevant law is found in s. 15 of the Storage, Display, Transportation and Handling of Individuals Regulations: “An individual may load a firearm or handle a loaded firearm only in a place where the firearm may be discharged in accordance with all applicable Acts of Parliament and of the legislature of a province, regulations made under such Acts, and municipal by-laws.” Note that this section makes no distinction based on the class of firearm and applies to all firearms whether they are non-restricted, restricted, or prohibited.
Section 86(1) of the Criminal Code also applies to the use of all firearms of any class, whether non-restricted, restricted, or prohibited, by making it an offence to use a firearm in a careless manner or without reasonable precautions for the safety of other persons. So it is important that the discharge of any firearm be done in a safe manner. The shooter is responsible for where the bullet goes, whether that is the intended target or not. Always be sure of your target and what lies beyond it.
With the exception of laws respecting National Parks, National Defence property, and federal Crown land, no other Acts of Parliament or regulations made under Acts of Parliament apply to the loading, handling, and discharging of firearms generally. Section 29 of the Firearms Act prevents anyone from operating a shooting range unless the shooting range is approved by the applicable provincial Minister. A shooting range is defined in the Shooting Clubs and Shooting Ranges Regulations as “a place that is designated or intended for the safe discharge, on a regular and structured basis, of firearms for the purpose of target practice or target shooting competitions.” Again it is of note that the section makes no distinction based on the class of firearm and applies to all firearms of any class, including non-restricted, restricted, and prohibited. A person cannot therefore shoot any firearm, even on their own property, if it is done on a regular and structured basis for the purpose of target practice or target shooting competitions.
What is “a regular and structured basis”? These terms are not defined in the Firearms Act or the various Regulations under the Firearms Act, so we must turn to their ordinary dictionary meanings. The Oxford Dictionary of English defines “regular” as “arranged in or constituting a constant or definite pattern, especially with the same space between individual instances” or “recurring at short uniform intervals” or “used, done, or happening on a habitual basis; usual”. “Structured” is defined in the Oxford Dictionary of English as “constructed or arranged according to a plan; give a pattern or organization to”. Until someone is charged with operating an illegal range and the definitions tested in Court, that is the best we can do.
In Ontario, the main Act which regulates firearm use in the Province is the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, 1997. Most of its provisions deal specifically in the use of firearms for hunting; the only provisions which is of general applicability to our question are s. 9(2) which prohibits the possession of any firearm in a Provincial Park or a Crown game preserve, except in certain prescribed circumstances and s. 17(1) which prohibit having a loaded firearm in a vehicle. Outside Ontario, reference would have to be made to the applicable Acts of the legislature of the Province in question and of any regulations made under such Acts.
Also in Ontario, the Municipal Act, 2001 permits local municipalities to pass by-laws prohibiting or regulating the discharge of firearms. In Ajax, the relevant By-Law is By-Law Number 111-2001, which prohibits the discharge of all firearms within the Town except under the specified circumstances. For example, a farmer or a member of his family can discharge a firearm upon his farmlands, or a person participating in an activity involving the discharge of a firearm which has been approved in writing by the Town (which applies to the Ajax Rod & Gun Club located in Paulynn Park).
Anyone who proposes discharging a firearm anywhere should be thoroughly familiar with all provincial laws and municipal by-laws for the location in question. Loading a firearm, handling a loaded firearm, or discharging a firearm contrary to any of these would be a criminal offence under s. 86(2) of the Criminal Code, in addition to any penalties under the provincial laws or municipal by-laws. Again, this applies to all firearms of any class, be it non-restricted, restricted, or prohibited.
The last part of the picture, and the only part that applies only to restricted firearms and prohibited firearms, is s. 17 of the Firearms Act:
Subject to sections 19 and 20, a prohibited firearm or restricted firearm, the holder of the registration certificate for which is an individual, may be possessed only at the dwelling-house of the individual, as recorded in the Canadian Firearms Registry, or at a place authorized by a chief firearms officer.
Note that the place specified is “at the dwelling-house” and not “in the dwelling-house”. The choice of words is important as a place “at the dwelling-house” is broader than a place “in the dwelling-house”. Had Parliament used “in the dwelling-house”, then it would be illegal to go outside one’s dwelling-house (even on an outside porch would be off-limits) with a restricted or prohibited firearm unless one had an Authorization to Transport under s. 19 or an Authorization to Carry under s. 20. However, Parliament chose to say “at the dwelling-house”. This includes the entire property on which the dwelling-house is located, as described by the same legal lot description and the same municipal address. Therefore, assuming all the above requirements are met, it is just as legal to discharge a restricted or prohibited firearm on the property where your dwelling-house is situated as it would be to discharge a non-restricted firearm.