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Canada Critics say Canada’s gun classification system out of step with modern assault weapons

or all the tough talk on assault-style rifles, the Justin Trudeau years have been good for the gun business.

RHONA WISE/AFP/Getty Images

To the untrained eye, the Canadian-made WK180-C bears close resemblance to the AR-15, the rifle synonymous with Sandy Hook, Sutherland Springs, Parkland and other settings of American atrocity.

They both look like instruments of war – pistol grips, detachable magazines, generally dark in colour. And they share triggers, barrels, hand-guards and 5.56 NATO ammo, the same rounds used in standard-issue Canadian Forces rifles.

But despite the clear similarities, to the trained eyes of Canada’s gun regulators, the two rifles are not closely related at all. In technical terms, the AR-15 is restricted, the WK180-C non-restricted – designations that carry major implications for those who own them. Restricted rifles are subject to a central registry and can only be fired on an approved range. Non-restricted guns have no registry and can be used for hunting and other recreational purposes.

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They are two very similar rifles subject to two very different sets of rules.

Organized Crime Reduction Minister Bill Blair will have to confront this seeming double standard head-on if he acts on a declaration from his office last week condemning assault-style rifles as weapons “designed to hunt people, and not animals, in the most efficient manner possible that maximizes the body count at minimum effort."

It was the Liberal government’s harshest statement yet on the types of magazine-fed semi-automatic rifles that have become associated with acts of mass murder around the world while earning a devoted fan-base among tens of thousands of law-abiding recreational shooters in Canada. What the Liberals plan to do and, just as importantly, what gun models they define as “assault-style rifles” is shrouded in secrecy.

For all the tough talk on assault-style rifles, the Justin Trudeau years have been good for the gun business. The number of restricted guns (mainly handguns and some semi-automatic rifles, such as the AR-15) has surged by at least 24 per cent − from 795,854 in December, 2015, to 983,793 three years later. Over the past two years, at least eight assault-style rifles, including the WK180-C, have been approved for sale in Canada as non-restricted guns, according to the pro-gun-control group PolySeSouvient.

“The classification system no longer makes any sense,” said the group’s co-ordinator, Heidi Rathjen. “I don’t think many people realize these guns are being approved as non-restricted under the Liberals, who promised to get these types of weapons off our streets.”

Scott Bardsley, a spokesman for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, said each classification decision is made by the RCMP based on “a professional, technical determination, not a subjective one” and argued that the government’s proposed firearms law, Bill C-71, would make it harder for criminals to get assault weapons.

But unlike firearms bills from Liberal governments gone by, C-71 makes no broad attempt to restrict access to particular types of firearms.

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In the 1990s, political pressure in the United States and Canada led to a crackdown on semiautomatic assault-style rifles. (Fully automatic guns fire multiple rounds for as long as the trigger is depressed and have long been prohibited in Canada for civilians; semi-automatic weapons fire one round for every pull of the trigger.) Then-U.S. president Bill Clinton signed a 10-year Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which defined assault rifles as any semiautomatic rifle with a detachable magazine and at least two military-style features, such as a pistol grip, bayonet mount or folding stock.

Allan Rock, Liberal justice minister at the time, followed suit, vowing to stamp out “military-type assault weapons.” Rather than passing comprehensive legislation that defined and prohibited assault weapons, the government of the day decided to pick and choose specific gun models by order-in-council.

According to RCMP briefing notes, the Canadian regulations were supposed to be continually updated as new guns came to the Canadian market. For the most part, that hasn’t happened. When the U.S. assault-weapons ban expired in 2004, a raft of new semi-automatic rifles came to market that weren’t covered by the dated Canadian regulations. The market evolved; Canadian laws did not.

In 2006, at Montreal’s Dawson College, a 26-year-old man used a semi-automatic carbine and other guns to kill one person and wound 19 others before taking his own life. The carbine, a Beretta CX4 Storm, had a barrel length of under 470 millimetres, putting it in the restricted class. The coroner assigned to the shooting later called for a prohibition on the sale of CX4 Storms to civilians. Today, the gun remains on sale and even comes in a version with a 480-millimetre barrel, making it non-restricted.

“This has been the burning issue in Canadian gun-control groups for 15 years: that all kinds of things are slipping through as non-restricted that were never intended to be non-restricted when we came up with these laws,” said A.J. Somerset, a hunter, sport-shooter, former gunnery instructor with the Canadian Forces and author of Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun. “You would get a similar explanation from the gun lobby, who say this is the most illogical thing in the world. Why is something like the AR-15 restricted and the AK-47 prohibited? It makes no sense.”

Back to the Canadian-made WK180-C. It earned a non-restricted classification when it entered the Canadian market last year. Non-restricted status puts these rifles in the same class as most hunting rifles, shotguns and other “long-guns” that were subject to a registry until the Conservative government scrapped it in 2012.

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The classification has helped fuel the WK180-C’s popularity. It sold 1,000 units in its first three days on sale and they’re currently out of stock at a price of $1,095.

“It is a strong seller for us,” said John Hipwell, president of Wolverine Supplies, the family-run gun retailer in Virden, Man., largely responsible for developing and distributing the WK180-C. “It fits the bill for varmint hunting, predator control, ranching and farming applications. And that’s because it’s non-restricted. If it were restricted, you could only use it in a range.”

Mr. Hipwell, who spent 17 years in the RCMP before joining the family business, says the WK180-C shouldn’t be conflated with the AR-15. “Obviously, as with many firearms, there are some interchangeable parts, but this rifle is based on the AR-180 and it is designed specifically for the Canadian market,” he said. “I could pick half a dozen guns and ask you which ones are real and which ones are Airsoft and you’re not going to know. And that’s where things get misconstrued in the media and the public eye.”

Many gun enthusiasts agree that the current classification system is incoherent, but would like to see those orders-in-council scrapped entirely and replaced with simple classification rules based entirely on firearm length and whether it’s fully automatic or not.

“You should be able to use a ruler and some common sense,” said Tracey Wilson, vice-president of public relations for the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights.

Mr. Somerset said gun enthusiasts are dreaming if they think the AR-15 could ever be downgraded to something approximating non-restricted status.

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“No prime minister is going to de-restrict the AR-15,” he said. “The only direction this moves in is to make all those rifles restricted."

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