Loopholes

January 14, 2013 1:13 pm
Updated: October 16, 2013 7:48 pm

Sawing off a shotgun can mean serious prison time – but loophole allows new shotguns with 8.5-inch barrels

Factory-made short-barrelled shotguns (top) are perfectly legal in Canada, and available to gun owners without any special restriction. (The shotgun above has an eight-and-a-half-inch barrel.) But saw a shotgun off to the same barrel length (below), and you're taking a chance on spending years of your life in a federal penitentiary.

Factory-made short-barrelled shotguns (top) are perfectly legal in Canada, and available to gun owners without any special restriction. (The shotgun above has an eight-and-a-half-inch barrel.) But saw a shotgun off to the same barrel length (below), and you're taking a chance on spending years of your life in a federal penitentiary.

THEAMMOSOURCE.COM (TOP), U.S. BUREAU OF ALCOHOL, TOBACCO, FIREARMS AND EXPLOSIVES (BOTTOM)
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Sawed-off shotguns – shotguns with barrels cut off to less than 18 inches – are illegal in Canada. Get caught with one at the wrong place and time, and you’re looking at serious time in a federal penitentiary.

But if a shotgun comes from the factory with a shortened barrel, even as short as 8½ inches, you’re in the clear – they are completely legal in Canada with no special restrictions.

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If a factory-produced shotgun has a barrel less than 18 inches, it’s legal so long as its overall length is greater than 660mm, or 30 inches, and the action is hand-operated, like a pump-action.

“NON-RESTRICTED (YES, REALLY!),” says a site offering Canadians a Dominion Arms Grizzly, which came from the factory with an 8.5-inch barrel. About 600 Grizzlies were registered in Canada at the time the long gun registry was deleted outside Quebec.

“They used to have very limited availability in Canada, not because they were necessarily prohibited, but because in the United States that have a federal law restricting shotguns with barrels shorter than eighteen inches,” says Ottawa-based firearms lawyer Solomon Friedman.

“So manufacturers weren’t really making them. They’ve now started making them just for the Canadian market, because we have different laws.”

The laws surrounding sawed-off shotguns are clear: shorten the barrel of a shotgun (or rifle) “by sawing, cutting or any other alteration,” to be less than 457 millimetres (18 inches), and you’ve committed a crime punishable by anything up to five years in a federal penitentiary. (If you’re caught with it loaded, or near “readily accessible” ammunition, the sentence could stretch to ten years, with a mandatory minimum of three years.)

There are lots of cases on the books. In September, a 23-year-old Sault Ste. Marie man found with a sawed-off double-barreled .410 shotgun was sent to prison for three years, the Sault Star reported.

In 2008, a New Westminster man was sentenced to four and a half years after police found a loaded sawed-off shotgun in his car.

In a 2010 case, a Victoria man was connected to a sawed-off shotgun found in a police raid through DNA evidence, and was sentenced to three years.

Because they combine power and concealability, sawed-off shotguns have a reputation for criminal connections since the gang wars of the 1930s.

In the U.S., the Grizzly and similar shotguns would have to be federally registered, at a cost of $200 (the fee was set in 1934, when it was the equivalent of $3,400 today).

It also would be illegal in several states, which just restrict barrel length, without regard to whether the shotgun got a short barrel on a production line or because of something that happened later on involving a hacksaw.

Possessing a Grizzly would result in up to three years in prison in Indiana, five years in Michigan, Minnesota, Washington, Hawaii, New Jersey, Delaware and Illinois, and ten years in Rhode Island.

Don’t even think about bringing up the Second Amendment – the U.S. Supreme Court ruled back in 1939 that it didn’t apply to short-barreled shotguns.

In Canada, a Grizzly is yours for $399, plus tax and shipping, so long as you have an ordinary gun licence which allows you to buy non-restricted firearms.

“Looking at that as a hunter, I see something that’s just to shoot people,” says Doug Carlson, a retired OPP staff sergeant who worked as a regional firearms officer in Ontario for six years.

“It’s of no use to you as a hunter – you could never hunt ducks or geese with it. You wouldn’t want to shoot skeet with it, because it has such a short barrel. The only application would be for protection in the bush, or if somebody wanted it for protection at home.”

“(Short-barrelled shotguns are) something the police don’t like, because they see someone wanting one of these things as having only criminal purposes for having it,” counters Blair Hagen of the National Firearms Association.

“There are a lot of Canadians who would elect to carry handguns for defence against wildlife, and it’s a very difficult process to get authorization to do so. What we’re finding is that these short-barreled shotguns are becoming more and more popular for purposes of defence against bears and other wild animals.”

“A full-length long gun has to be constantly in your hands, or slung over your shoulder, and it interferes with a lot of other equipment that people are carrying.”

About one-sixth of the 3,077 Dominion Arms short shotguns owned in Canada are held by people living in rural postal codes. On the other hand, about half were in British Columbia, most of which falls within grizzlies’ range.

The data comes from a redacted copy of the gun registry released to Global News earlier this year under access-to-information laws – before it was largely deleted.

In total, the long gun registry shows 17,645 shotguns with barrel lengths under 18 inches – in all cases, if their owners had sawn them down to that length, they would have been committing a crime.

Shotguns in this category have an average barrel length of 321mm, or about 12.6 inches.

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