What Airguns Are Firearms?

Under Canadian law "firearm" means a barrelled weapon from which any shot, bullet or other projectile can be discharged and that is capable of causing serious bodily injury (i.e., permanent damage to an eye) or death to a person, and includes any frame or receiver of such a barrelled weapon and anything that can be adapted for use as a firearm.  Using just this definition virtually every airgun firing a lead pellet is a firearm.

However, since 1978 there has been a partial exception for relatively low powered airguns.  According to the Criminal Code a pellet gun is a firearm for the purposes of the Firearms Act only if it is designed or adapted to discharge: Airgun Lead Pellet 

   -  a pellet at a muzzle velocity of more than 152.4 metres per second (about 500 feet per second); or 
   -  a pellet which itself is designed or adapted to attain a velocity of more than 152.4 metres per second. 

That meant that typical low powered airguns did not require registration nor the owner to be licenced. 

While the legal definitions concerning airguns have been in place for over twenty years, they have never made a lot of sense.  Velocity by itself does not determine how much damage a projectile will cause - it is necessary to take into account the weight of the projectile.  Because the legal class of an airgun has depended solely on the velocity of a projectile fired from it, every time some manufacturer produces a faster pellet the lowest power airguns could potentially be reclassified as non-restricted firearms.  Ironically, many low powered airguns actually produce less energy despite having higher velocities due to the light weight of hyper-velocity pellets.

Until early in 2000, the authorities used manufacturers' specifications for muzzle velocity to determine whether or not individual pellet guns and/or models were firearms requiring Firearms Licences and registration.  At that time the existence of "hyper velocity" (mostly plastic) pellets came to the attention of the authorities and they began testing airguns with the new pellets.  As these new pellets are significantly faster than traditional lead pellets the vast majority of airguns that couldn't previously shoot faster than the legal limit now do so.  

The consequences of this development is that millions of low power pellet airguns will require registration and their owners will have to have a Firearms Licence.  At the moment, it appears that the authorities do not know which airgun models will be reclassified as it will be necessary to call in samples of every model for velocity testing. There is currently lots of confusion concerning the legal status of airguns, with the Minister of Justice claiming that she and not the criminal code decides what is a firearm. The prudent course of action for an airgun owner is to treat your airgun as a firearm and apply for a Firearms Licence and register the airgun.

The only way to address this issue of fluctuating legal status for airguns is to move away from a definition that is based only upon velocity.  Parliament could change to the legislation to use an energy criteria and adopt the European energy based standard of 8 joules. Even simpler would be to declare airguns of .22 calibre and less as deemed non-firearms for the purposes of registration and licencing.  As all airguns of .22 calibre and less are capable of causing serious eye injury but are all extremely unlikely to cause significant injury to any other part of the body, it would not poses a serious threat to public safety to exclude all small calibre airguns from regulation. Please lobby your Member of Parliament for changes to this legislation.

This page last modified on January 15, 2001. Used with permission of www.FirearmsTraining.ca

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