A Charter Right to Bear Arms?

My friend Michael Cust makes an interesting suggestion in a blog post asking whether there is a right to bear arms in Canada: while there is no self-standing right to bear arms, “a case could be made that it’s part of our right to liberty” protected by section 7 of the Charter, because history suggests that, in the last resort, weapons are necessary for citizens to protect their freedom from the government’s oppression.  Michael believes, however, that section 1 of the Charter would allow limits to be imposed on the scope of the right to bear arms read into s. 7, although the controls it would sanction would be less strict than those which could otherwise be imposed. Although I am profoundly sceptical of the underlying claim that weapons are an essential, or even an effective protection for our rights and freedoms, I put this problem to one side, in order to address the less philosophical and more technically legal difficulties with Michael’s claim.

The s. 7 liberty protection, as the Supreme Court has interpreted it, extends to freedom from physical restraints and also to “important and fundamental life choices.” (Blencoe v. British Columbia (Human Rights Commission), 2000 SCC 44, [2000] 2 S.C.R. 307, par. 49). I strongly doubt that the courts would accept that a decision to own a weapon is such a choice. And I doubt that they would extend the scope of s. 7 to a sort of collective freedom guarantee protecting the Lockean right of rebellion. So I think that an attempt to read a right to bear arms directly into the s.7 right to liberty, as Michael suggests, could not succeed. But there are at least two more ways to go about try to have the right to bear arms read into s. 7.

The first one is to argue that the right to bear arms, or at least some form of it, is a principle of fundamental justice  and Parliament or the provincial legislatures cannot subject people to the threat of imprisonment (thus uncontroversially engaging the right to liberty) in contravention to this principle. The difficulty of course would be to show that the right to bear arms is a principle of fundamental justice in Canada. As restated in R. v. D.B., 2008 SCC 25, [2008] 2 S.C.R. 3, at par. 46,  a principle of fundamental justice

(1)   … must be a legal principle.

(2)   There must be a consensus that the rule or principle is fundamental to the way in which the legal system ought fairly to operate.

(3)   It must be identified with sufficient precision to yield a manageable standard against which to measure deprivations of life, liberty or security of the person.

Can the right to bear arms fit those conditions? I don’t think so, if only because there is surely little consensus about its status or importance in the Canadian legal system. One could try to argue, persuasively enough, that the right to defend one’s rights is in fact a principle of fundamental justice, operating for example to render unconstitutional  a law preventing citizens from suing the government or asserting the unconstitutionality of a statute. (These examples are not entirely imaginary either, as cases such as Amax Potash and Air Canada v. BC demonstrate.) But could such a principle be extended to a right to vindicate ones rights, not in a court of law, but by force of arms? I very much doubt it.

The final possibility would be to link the right to bear arms not to liberty, but to security of the person, which s. 7 also protects. Arguably, a restriction on one’s ability to own a weapon for self-defence impairs one’s “security of the person.” But this post is getting out of hand, and since it is not directly related to Michael’s argument, I will discuss this possibility later on.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

2 thoughts on “A Charter Right to Bear Arms?”

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