For most Canadians, our awareness of Canada’s firearms legislation is limited to the controversy concerning the long-gun registry — the legislation passed by the federal government as part of a more comprehensive Firearms Act in 1995 — that requires all rifle owners to register their guns. It would seem that most police officers, Crown attorneys, and judges are also a little hazy on the technicalities of the act. “I see a large part of what I do as educating the courts and police officers about our firearms legislation,” says lawyer Edward Burlew. “I have represented hundreds and hundreds of gun owners and, in a great many cases, I have been able to show that the police officers and the Crown attorneys don’t fully understand the legislation’s technicalities.”
Burlew cites, as examples, two cases where he was called in after the individuals had spent several weeks in jail — they were unable to get bail — on alleged firearms violations that had no basis in law. In one case just north of Toronto, relates Burlew, the individual owned a black-powder revolver. The gun owner was charged with having an unlicensed gun and had been in jail for 65 days when Burlew took the case. “The first lawyer was unable to get bail,” says Burlew. “I explained to the court that owners of black-powder revolvers are not required — under the legislation — to have the gun either licensed or registered. The judge apologized to my client and released him.”
In a second case, in southeastern Ontario, Burlew’s client ordered a BB gun through the mail. The police intercepted the gun prior to delivery and determined that it was a replica. Replicas of modern guns that can cause serious bodily harm are prohibited. The client was charged and jailed without bail. When Burlew entered the case, he pointed out that his client didn’t have a criminal record and could therefore legally buy the BB gun. It took a few weeks, but the court finally conceded that the gun wasn’t a replica and that the accused didn’t need a licence. He was immediately set free but only after having spent 100 days in jail.
Burlew is one of just three active lawyers in Canada who specialize in firearms cases. For the practitioner from Thornhill, Ont., his legal interest in firearms is an extension of his background and private life. Burlew was born in southern New Jersey where his father was the area representative for the National Rifle Association. “I grew up in a country setting,” he recalls. “We were always hunting. I shot my first deer when I was 10 years old.” Although the family moved to Ontario while the future lawyer was in his early teens, the Burlews’ involvement in shooting-related sports remained strong. “I enjoy hunting,” says Burlew. “I have hunted throughout southern Ontario, in the United States, and in the Yukon and the Northwest Territories.” He says he also takes part in rifle shooting competitions and enjoys target shooting and clay bird shooting. He notes that he is at the black-badge level — the highest level there is — in handgun shooting. “My wife and daughter also enjoy the shooting sports,” he says.
Burlew earned his law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School in 1977, and was called to the bar in Ontario in 1979. While firearms cases always formed part of his caseload, it was with the passage of the 1995 Firearms Act that he began to devote his practice almost entirely to that area of law. “I foresaw tremendous changes in firearms licensing,” he says. “On my own, I devoted a year to studying the legislation. I read every case under the new act and I continue to keep up to date.”
His clients are hunters, gun ownership groups, shooting ranges, suppliers, police officers, Canadian military personnel, and individuals charged with having unlicensed firearms or unsafe storage of such firearms. Typical of his cases was a gun owner who reported a home break-in. His gun wasn’t one of the items stolen but the responding officers charged him with unsafe storage of a firearm — a hunting rifle in this case — even though it was unloaded. “It was an uphill fight, but we eventually won,” says Burlew. “I argue continually that unsafe storage of a firearm should be a regulatory rather than a criminal issue. But Crown attorneys consistently want jail time.”
Burlew also cites cases of clients who have been denied firearms licences because of medical conditions such as periodic depression or cancer. “There is concern about potential suicide in cases such as these,” he says. “We have to determine with the court if the client is suicidal.”
It’s not only Canadian firearms legislation that Burlew keeps abreast of. He represents clients from across Canada, but also has an international clientele. “It’s what I do in my spare time,” he says. “Half the time, I am dealing with travel and import/export issues involving the United States, Dubai, Qatar, Korea, and Hong Kong. I am studying the firearm laws in the United States, Australia, and Britain and their relevance in a Canadian context. We have a lot of Americans and others who come to Canada to hunt and fish. Americans who cross into Canada with concealed weapons, for example, generally don’t realize that the penalty if they get caught is a minimum three years in jail. They expect maybe a fine.
“I have so many clients that go back and forth. I need to know the legislation in other countries in order to assist all my clients.”
Burlew notes that he does not accept as clients gang members or others engaged in illegal pursuits. “I need to maintain a high level of credibility,” he insists.
Burlew expects his workload will continue to increase as he carries on helping judges, Crown attorneys, and police officers make sense of the firearms legislation.