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

Bad Guns

Firearm prohibitionists in the United States and Canada claim that semiautomatic military style "assault weapons" are prevalent among criminals and are more dangerous that other sporting firearms.

In reality, the assault weapon issue is a carefully constructed and masterful public relations strategy deeply rooted in the American gun control scene.

In the fall of 1988, Josh Sugarmann, formerly of the National Coalition to Ban Handguns and now the current head of the US firearm prohibitionist lobby group Violence Policy Center, observed that the handgun ban issue in the United States was considered old news by the media. There remained little opportunity of enacting handgun bans, known in American parlance as Saturday Night Special legislation (Morgan, Kopel, 1993, p.40).

The "assault weapons" issue allows the prohibitionist to exploit the non-gun owning public's ignorance of firearm technology in general, and semiautomatic firearms in particular. Sugarmann's strategy memo states:

"The semiautomatic weapon's menacing looks, coupled with the public's confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semiautomatic weapons - anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun - can only increase that chance of public support for restriction of these weapons"

(Morgan, Kopel, 1993, p.40)

To compound the situation, and as described by Sugarmann (1992, p.205) himself:
"The new debate required a level of technical expertise and knowledge the gun control movement lacked - and that few in it were willing to acquire. Firearms knowledge, they seemed to feel, implied a tacit endorsement of the weapons themselves."
For the firearm prohibitionist, acquiring the necessary technical and historical knowledge about firearm-related issues has become the moral equivalent of "sleeping with the enemy".

In acutal fact, there is no such thing as an "assault weapon" in the lexicon of firearm technology.

There are legitimate "assault rifles", which the United States Department of Defense defines as "short, compact, selective-fire weapons that fire a cartridge intermediate in power between submachinegun and rifle cartridges" (Morgan, Kopel, 1993, p.8).

Firearms prohibitionists insists that these alleged "assault rifles" are "weapons of war". That claim is false. These firearms are capable of semiautomatic operation only and are not in use by any army anywhere in the world (Morgan, Kopel, 1993, p.15).

Contrary to what is portrayed in the media and prohibitionist literature, it is acknowledged by Dr. Martin Fackler, Director of the Wound Ballistics Laboratory at the United States Letterman Army Institute of Research, that "assault rifles" fire smaller than average ammunition and that this ammunition has milder wounding effects than civlian hunting ammunition or regular infantry rifle cartridges (Kleck 1990, p.77).

Modern military assault rifles may appear ominous but, in fact, are less lethal than standard hunting rifles.

Semiautomatic-only versions of military assault rifles have been legally available to Canadians for decades. They are functionally identical to, and have the same effective rate of fire, as every other "sporting" semiautomatic rifle. They differ only in the "furniture" which the firearm is sporting, usually a plastic or composite material to reduce weight.

Another twist on the "assault weapons" phrase are "assault pistols" and "assault shotguns".

These differ from non-"assault" pistols and shotguns in cosmetic appearance only and are no more lethal than any other revolver, semiautomatic pistol or shotgun (Kleck, 1990, p.77).

Under Bill C-51, all firearms (such as the American M16, Soviet AK47, and Israeli Uzi submachine gun) capable of automatic operation were prohibited. There was never any hard evidence presented to either Members of Parliament or the public that the sivilian ownership of automatic firearms, which had been completely legal in Canada for generations, was a problem.

Professor Gary Kleck's (1991, pp.81-82) analysis of the "assault weapons" controversy concludes:

"To summarize, 'assault rifles' and 'assault weapons' are rarely used by criminals in general or by drug dealers or juvenile gang members in particular, are almost never used to kill police officers, are generally less lethal than orginary hunting rifles, and are not easily converted to fully automatic fire. They offer a rate of fire somewhat higher than ordinary gun types [in comparison bolt, lever, and pump action firearms], but there is at present little reason to believe either attribute is relevant to the outcome of any significant number of gun crimes."

Kleck (1990, pp.73-75) estimates that only 2%-4% of all firearms used in violent crime in the United States can be considered "assault weapons".

Wright, Rossi (1986, p.xvi, p.89) in their survey of convicted criminals, found that criminals who use furearms do not prefer "assault weapons" as their crime guns.

While similar analysis has not been done in Canada, recent data from the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics indicated that in 1992 and 1993, only 1.2% of all homicides in Canada involved "military style" semiautomatic firearms 30 .

During the debate in the House of Commons on Bill C-51 there was no reference in Hansard to "military style assault weapons", "assault rifles", "assault shotguns", or "assault pistols" 31 . These phrases are a deliberately vague, non-technical slang which were manufactured by the firearm prohibitionist lobbies in the United States and imported into Canada by Canadian firearm prohibitionists and the media.

Virtually every handgun, rifle, and shotgun has a military pedigree. These phrases are degined to be flexible enough to convince legislators to draft an "assault weapons" ban - which does nothing to reduce crime - but ultimately allows the government to confiscate virtually every "politically incorrect" firearm which has subjective military appearance.

The 1997 legislation had required that existing owners of automatic firearms declared prohibited could retain them subject to "grandfathering". They had the option of converting these firearms to semiautomatic operation. This eliminated any restriction on possession and subsequent sale. Retailers were also permitted to sell automatic firearms which had been converted to semiautomatic.

Police agencies began to report that these firearms could "easily" be reconverted to automatic; however, "easily" almost always required the services of a skilled armourer.

In any event, under Bill C-51, converting any firearm to automtic operation was already a crime subject to a five year jail term. There was never any valid evidence that this alleged practice was widespread; nevertheless, it was only a matter of time before the "loophole" alleged to have been created by C-51 would be placed on the legislative agenda.

Marc Lepine's bloody rampage gave the government the excuse it needed.

On 26 June, 1990, Kim Campbell, the recently appointed and ambitious Minister of Justice, introduced Bill C-80, the Conservative government's firearm control legislation (Bartlett, 1994, p.3) 32 .

Bill C-80 proposed, inter alia, a prohibition on the civilian ownership of any magazines capable of holding five rounds of ammunition for centerfire rifles and shotguns and ten rounds for semiautomatic centerfire handguns.

The screening system for FAC applicants, originally proposed in Bill C-83, was resurrected. It required that the applicant provide two personal references, a photograph ID, and successfully complete a firearm safety training course. Issuance of the FAC required a minimum 28-day "waiting period". The fee for the FAC was to be increased from $10 to $50 (Kopel, 1990, p.166).

Firearms that had been converted from automatic to semiautomatic were prohibited. Existing owners of converted firearms would be required to register them, and would be able to sell them only to other authorized owners of converted firearms. The government promised that a list of "assault firearms" was being prepared and that they would be prohibited through Order-in-Council.

Persons classified as "collectors" of restricted firearms were required to allow the police access to their homes, on an annual basis, to permit an inspection of the area where the firearms were stored.

Whereas Bill C-51 had not defined "safe storage", the new legislation proposed seperate criteria for restricted and non-restricted firearms.

The bill was supported by the Liberal and New Democratic parties, which promised to give it quick approval; however, it created a firestorm of protest from firearms owners across Canada who considered it unnecessarily restrictive and completely unjustified as a "crime control" strategy (Fife, 1993, p.124).

But it would be an ugly political incident which occured in an obscure little resort town in Quebec named Oka that would serve as the final catalyst for additional gun controls.