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book review

Robert LeCroy works in his family run gun shop Acworth Guns.Natalie Keyssar/The Globe and Mail

We have rules in our family about the guns we keep. We have safety rules, of course: a paranoiac's fantasia of keys, combinations and triple-locked redundancy so complete that it took me half an hour to get at my rifle before deer season last December, and another half hour to unlock the ammunition. More important, we also observe what I think of as cultural rules. The guns we own are for grouse and duck and deer – hunting, and only those. They are not ever for "a certain level of security" – for fending away and possibly killing other humans – as Canada's prime minister approvingly put it earlier this year. We will never own a handgun or a semiautomatic, combat-ready rifle, much less one of those revolver-shaped "We Don't Dial 9-1-1" signs.

And because we live in Toronto, in a neighbourhood that isn't likely to look highly on firearm-owners, my seven-year-old knows he is never to talk with his friends about guns or hunting, or to mention the .177 calibre pellet rifle that I bought him, that he uses to plink at paper bulls' eyes on a family friend's farm. This, above all, is our household's most important gun rule: We are not and never will be gun people, and we have no interest in being confused for such. Which puts me in an odd and rarely heard-from minority, I thought, until reading A.J. Somerset's Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun.

Somerset is a former gunnery instructor with the Canadian army. He is an outdoors journalist, novelist (Combat Camera, 2011) and sport shooter based in London, Ont., who writes with his Browning pump shotgun disassembled, in front of him, on his desk. At the age of 46, Somerset's ears ring constantly, he says, "… the direct and irreversible result of my recent hobby, trapshooting, hundreds of rounds a week from a 12-gauge, the shotgun bucking in my hands and barking in my ear." His gun-nut credentials, in other words, are more or less intact.

Yet Somerset, like me, is mostly disgusted by what passes in both Canada and the United States for gun culture. "If you own guns, it is now taken as given that you must believe even the most tentative gun control is at best futile and at worst a step towards the total confiscation of all firearms by a totalitarian state," he writes. "And of course you are also assumed to hold a set of shared beliefs on any number of subjects completely unrelated to guns – on partisan politics and government and climate change and environmental regulations and religion and whether the war in Iraq was a good idea – as if your gun had come with a free, bonus ideological Family Pack."

Arms is Somerset's look at the rise of that gun culture in North America, and an attempt – albeit a dishonest one; his conclusions come off as preordained – to puzzle out how we got to this place. It is a polemic disguised only loosely as journalism. "I am after the Wellspring of Crazy," he writes in the book's introduction. Dishonest as his approach may be, the journey promises to be a barrel full of fun.

He begins with gun culture's origin story and the development of the modern firearm, cribbing heavily from St. Mary's University historian R. Blake Brown's superb and groundbreaking Arming and Disarming: A History of Gun Control in Canada, published in 2012. Early Canada was rifle-crazy, we learn. Target shooting was once among the country's most popular sports, and it was the first to receive federal funding, through the Dominion of Canada Rifle Association. The results of shooting matches were reported in The Toronto Globe, much the way PGA scores are reported today.

Within a couple of years of Confederation, Canada's national militia was populated with expert shooters – a reality that caused no small amount of consternation around the United States. "Canada today has 45,000 trained marksmen among her volunteers, England 150,000, while the United States has none," The New York Times fretted in 1872.

And so the National Rifle Association was created to correct that shortcoming: to "promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis." Yet to get the NRA up and running required expert help from Canada. Canadians helped to design the first NRA rifle range, on Long Island. At least in the short term, we also owned that range's podium: A Canadian sharpshooter won the NRA's first rifle match.

As a would-be popular historian, Somerset is not bad – not at least on the top-down, great man history bits. He tracks the devolution of the NRA, for instance, from an organization that supported and even authored (relatively) sensible national firearms regulations to one that bitterly opposes any gun control measures. He delves nicely into the role of race in gun culture and gun control: "Guns are all about keeping black people down," he writes in one of Arms's strongest chapters. When the U.S. Gun Control Act was passed in 1968 in the face of race riots, the United States's gun lobby stood aside. That act, which banned cheap "Saturday Night Special" handguns, among other measures, was aimed mostly at young, urban black men, many argue. "The NRA, feeling that black control was something the sportsmen of America could live with, cautiously approved."

On the lobby's recent embrace of female shooters, he is equally scathing. "This is a special form of feminism, in which men are still in charge, and strong, independent women stand up for the things men like, such as guns," he writes. On the campaigns to arm women to better protect them, he pronounces, "The true threat to women's safety is not in the park, where balaclava-clad rapists lurk; it's in the home, and it calls you 'Honey.'"

On the survivalist movement, which often espouses the stockpiling of combat arms and ammunition, he seethes, "The survivalist's greatest fear is not that our society will collapse into violence. His greatest fear, his greatest disappointment, is that it will not."

We watch the birth of the Canadian gun lobby in response to a national firearms licensing proposal in the 1970s. In Canada, at least, the gun lobby wasn't entirely delusional. A few years later, Allan Rock, the minister of justice who introduced Canada's doomed national long gun registry, arrived in Ottawa "with the firm belief that the only people in Canada who should have firearms are police officers and the military." What were gun owners – even the many sensible ones – supposed to think?

Yet while Arms's early, official history is interesting enough and nicely told, the book begins to fall apart when Somerset turns to the all-important questions of culture and values and why they've evolved. He careens from criminal case to criminal case, from self defence precedents to stand-your-ground and open-carry laws, through court judgments and pop-psychology, through fetid Internet chatrooms and comment streams, through mass murders (David Koresh, Timothy McVeigh, Marc Lépine, Justin Bourque and a menagerie of killers all make cameos here), through survivalist how-to books and YouTube clips, through Tom Clancy novels and even through a seemingly endless section on the Woody Guthrie song 1913 Massacre, but too often because these provide fuel for Somerset's indignation and props to support his argument (in a phrase: that gun culture runs on "gurgling idiocy"), instead of real depth or insight.

In Somerset's lengthy – and by lengthy, I mean stupefying – disquisition on the role of the Hollywood western, we learn in detail about the plot and character differences between Kurt Russell's Tombstone and Kevin Costner's Wyatt Earp, among many other movies, but not in service of original thought. We learn about them so that Somerset can cluck about how the western "hammers history into myth with glib certainty, discarding the complexity of law in favour of simple justice, under which you need only feel that you're in the right to inherit all the moral authority justice can bestow." It all begins to feel like being locked in a room with your moralizing granddad, clearing his throat and angrily shaking his morning tabloid. Worse yet, granddad's never really left home to see firsthand what he's so furious about.

This is the greatest failing of Arms: While it promises to locate the wellspring of crazy – to be a sort of Among the Thugs, but about gun nuts instead of soccer hooligans – Somerset hasn't done the legwork. Apart from a handful of well-reported, well-told set pieces, Somerset doesn't much talk with real-life crazies. (An exception: the chapter on the Dryden, Ont., gunsmith Bruce Montague, who is the Canadian gun lobby's favourite martyr. Montague kept a Timothy McVeigh-worthy armoury of highly illegal weapons in a secret room in his home, yet he's seen in many circles as a Canadian hero, defending freedom and righteousness for all of us. This makes for brilliant and deeply infuriating reading.)

Somerset writes an entire chapter on survivalists without presenting any evidence he's actually encountered one. (Among his sources: the short-lived NBC series Jericho, and Night of The Living Dead.) This is particularly appalling considering that the United Survivalist Network of Ontario is headquartered not two hours from where Somerset lives. My suspicion: The group was nowhere near as crazy or as heavily armed as the author's thesis required.

I would love, as well, to have read about Somerset's encounters with the leadership of the Canadian Shooting Sports Association – the group that has the federal government's ear and the dream of stripping away many of Canada's more restrictive guns laws. That group is "Canada's own little NRA," Somerset charges, "eagerly importing the values of the American gun nut."

Yet if Somerset ever spoke with them, that interaction didn't make it into the book. Which is too bad, because they're easy people to get on the phone. I called the Canadian Shooting Sports Association for a story a couple of years ago. I could clearly hear the wellspring of crazy gurgling madly in the background the entire time.

Somerset also doesn't bother to break down the recent political mainstreaming of what were once considered fringe ideas about guns in Canada, or the patron-client connections between Canada's Conservative party and the gun lobby. (See: "A certain level of security," above.) But diving into that particular swamp would have taken real reporting. So he leaves that story – a rather important one if you're writing a book on gun culture and its evolution in Canada – wholly unaddressed.

Arms ends with an angry appeal for dialogue and for common sense. "But before that could happen, we would have to stop flinging monkey shit at each other, to come down from the treetops, and conduct ourselves like adults," Somerset scolds.

But neither he, nor the conversation on guns in Canada, seem ready to do that just yet.

Chris Nuttall-Smith is the Globe and Mail's Toronto restaurant critic.

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