5. The Politics of Panic - A History of Canadian Firearms Control


On 29 March, 1933, Hugh Guthrie, now Minister of Justice in the Bennett Cabinet, reported to Parliament:

"..I am sorry to say that according to the reports from the police associations of various cities in Canada the number of persons found carrying pistols and revolvers has in recent years very largely increased. It is the commonest thing now when a man in arrested for crime, upon searching him in the police court, to discover that he has in his possession a pistol or revolver. He may be a man with a long criminal record. The present penalties for carrying such a weapon are not considered very severe."

(Hansard, 1933, p.3513)

Guthrie introduced legislation which provided for a penalty of not more than five years imprisonment for the unauthorized carrying of a concealed handgun or any firearm capable of being concealed such as a sawed-off rifle or shotgun 24 (Hansard, 1933, p.4397).

A considerable amount of debate occured between Guthrie and other Members of Parliament concerning the bill. James Woodsworth of the CCF, while supporting the bill in principle, asked whether similar restrictions would be placed on police in Canada:

"What sort of regulation in there with regard to the carrying of revolvers and pistols by the police themselves?...I submit that one of the reasons we have armed criminals in this country is that they know they have to deal with constables who are armed with lethal weapons. I would like to see the government hold the police responsible."

(Hansard, 1933, p.3513)

James Malcolm (Ont: Bruce North) concurred:

"Only a very few decades ago you would not find a policeman on the streets of any American or Canadian city with the two gun holsters exposed. The whole business of gun carrying has been much increased simply by the ostentatious display of weapons by the police."

(Hansard, 1933, p.3514)

Thomas Reid (Lib. BC: New Westminister) and James Malcolm suggested that sawed-off rifles and shotguns - excluded in the original bill - be included in the prohibition, as these firearms "...were only used for criminal purposes". Guthrie disagreed:

"What is the length of a sawed-off shotgun? I have had shotguns sawed off an inch and a half."

(Hansard, 1933, p.3521)

"..I know of some very wealthy men who have sawed-off firearms in their houses for their own protection. I know that to be a fact."

(Hansard, 1933, p.3522)

Angus MacInnis (CCF, BC: Vancouver South) was considerably more forthright in his assesment of the legislations's probable effect on armed crime:

"...But if we take the view that merely passing legislation of this kind will prevent holdups and holdups with violence, we are very much mistaken, because such holdups will take place, not because those who are staging them wish to do so, but because the pressure of circumstances drives them to that extreme."

(Hansard, 1933, p.3517)

Some MP's: "Oh, no."

MacInnis: "Just a moment. Anyone who does not agree with this point of view need not accept it; but let me point out present conditions in this country. The fact that the number of inmates in our penitentiaries and gaols is increasing by leaps and bounds is due, not to badness of heart, if you like, or to criminal tendencies on the part of our people, but to the economic position in which our people find themselves in."

(Hansard, 1933, pp.3517-3518)

Some MP's: "No, no."

MacInnis: "Of course it is. As a matter of fact, any one who know anything at all know it to be the case. If we believe this legislation will prevent that sort of thing, it undoubtedly will not do anything of the kind...The bandits,...are only taking a leaf out of the book of the state. The state deprives a man of the means of livelihood and then, when it finds him walking the street, it arrests him and sentences him for vagrancy."

(Hansard, 1933, p.3518)

"...I say that people act according to the conditions in which they find themselves. If we want to make people good, we must improve conditions. That is what I say and what any person who has any understanding of psychology says."

(Hansard, 1933, p.3518)

William Kennedy (Man: Winnipeg S. Ctr.) was concerned that Guthrie's legislation would simply target "...thousands upon thousands of innocent citizens" who kept handguns in their homes with no criminal intent (Hansard, 1933, p.3519). Guthrie replied:

"I may say that his proposal was pretty well considered. Originally it was provided that a man might have a pistol in his home, on the theory I suppose that a Canadian's home is his castle, just like an Englishman's, and that he has the right to have anything in it and to act as he likes in his home. Certainly, his first duty is to defend his own home."

(Hansard, 1933, p.3519)

Guthrie reported that at least a quarter of a million homes in Canada possessed souvenir handguns from World War One, and indicated that the Commissioner of the RCMP had suggested:

"...that all such weapons be registered...However, it was considered that that involved a great deal of work, and probably of unnecessary work. After considering the matter from every angle we decided that pistols in houses and warehouses and private premises should be permitted to remain there. So long as they stay there, they are no menace to the public."

(Hansard, 1933, p.3519)

Parliament approved the bill on 28 April, 1933; however, Hugh Guthrie's reasons for rejecting the registration of handguns became all the more ironic in light of subsequent events.