Thirty years ago, a 25-year-old man wearing blue jeans and Kodiak boots stormed into Montreal’s École Polytechnique carrying a heavy black bag and a grudge.
He pulled a legally purchased Ruger Mini-14 rifle from the bag, entered a classroom of engineering students and yelled, “Separate – the girls on the left and the guys on the right.”
He targeted the women, killing 14. Another 10 were injured along with four men. The Dec. 6, 1989 mass shooting remains the country’s deadliest.
Three decades later, despite tireless campaigning by former students, gun-control advocates and others for a ban, the Mini-14 remains as legal as ever.
The re-elected Liberal government has promised to prohibit the sale of “military-style assault rifles," but the Mini-14 has eluded such proscriptions before. Since its introduction to civilian markets in the mid-1970s, it has proven to be a shape-shifter of a gun – a simple hunting rifle to some, a deadly assault rifle to others – one that defies easy classification.
“It’s a very fine hunting rifle,” said Edward Burlew, a lawyer specializing in firearms cases who has worked with pro-gun groups. “It’s not designed to be an assault rifle, whatever that is. It’s suited for groundhogs, for raccoons and other small game. I’ve used it with my friends, and we found it quite good for that."
He is vehemently opposed to any law that would restrict access to the popular rifle. “I think anybody trying to ban it is just misinformed and reacting emotionally, not rationally.”
For those who survived the Montreal shooting, it can be galling to hear the Mini-14 referred to as a small-game rifle, especially after another Mini-14 was used to kill 69 young people in Norway eight years ago. “A vermin gun? We were not vermin 30 years ago,” said Nathalie Provost, who was shot in the forehead, legs and foot after she tried to talk down the Montreal shooter. “It was a war scene in that classroom – nothing less than that. Were they vermin in Norway when those young people were shot with the same gun?"
In the past, gun owners have won this clash of perspectives. In 1999, then-justice minister Anne McLellan assured gun-control advocates that the government of Jean Chrétien would prohibit the Mini-14 as soon as the long-gun registry was “satisfactorily implemented.” That day never came.
When the United States implemented a ban on assault weapons in 1994, it defined an assault rifle as any magazine-fed semi-automatic rifle featuring two or more characteristics that the Mini-14 generally lacked: a grenade launcher, a telescoping or folding stock, a pistol grip, a bayonet mount. But just to ensure the law didn’t scoop up any Mini-14s, lawmakers specifically exempted the gun.
The rifle has slipped through gun-control efforts here and in the U.S. because its form belies its function. Designed as a scaled-down version of the U.S. military’s M14 battle rifle of the 1960s and borrowing heavily from the M1 Garand used in the Second World War, the original Mini-14 featured a polished wooden stock that wouldn’t look out of place on grandpa’s hunting gun rack.
As for performance, however, gun enthusiasts often compare it with AR-15 style rifles, the kind used in Newtown, Las Vegas and numerous other mass shootings in the U.S. Like the AR-15, the Mini-14 is a magazine-fed semi-automatic rifle chambered in .223 Remington or the more powerful 5.56 NATO, rounds originally designed for military combat – smaller and lighter than the ammo used in the M14 and M1, so soldiers could carry more of it.
But perceptions of the gun have shifted of late. After New Zealand’s mosque shootings in March, the government there passed a ban on most semi-automatic rifles, including the Mini-14. In Canada, concerns over gun violence have been rising, as homicides using a gun vaulted from 155 in 2014 to 249 last year. Although handguns account for the bulk of that increase, the federal Liberals pledged to ban and buy back all “military-style assault rifles" in civilian hands during the election campaign. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau specifically cited the Montreal shooting as a tragedy where such a weapon was used.
“I do suspect that the Liberals will announce that the Mini-14 will be included in their definition of assault weapons,” said Heidi Rathjen, who was at École Polytechnique the day of the shooting and co-ordinates the gun-control advocacy group Poly Remembers.
Such an announcement would mark the end of a long campaign for Ms. Rathjen and other survivors. Immediately after the shooting, they drafted a petition to ban all semi-automatic rifles, which fire one round with every pull of the trigger without having to manually chamber a new round.
When the students realized such a blanket prohibition would affect many legitimate hunting rifles, they decided instead to request a ban on “military and paramilitary weapons,” terminology preferred by the RCMP at the time.
“That’s when people started to really get concerned about the availability of guns that can be fired as fast as you pulled the trigger – until run out of ammunition,” said Blake Brown, a history professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax and author of Arming and Disarming: A History of Gun Control in Canada. “If you look in the parliamentary debates at this time, there’s lots of people who are saying, ‘Why are we allowing these things to be sold?'"
Throughout the 1990s, the survivors’ push gained traction with Ottawa. Governments passed new gun laws that limited rifle magazines to five rounds (the Montreal shooter had used 30-round magazines), created a long-gun registry and placed onerous restrictions and prohibitions on models of firearms “not reasonably used in hunting.”
“Theoretically, it was supposed to have been a ban on all assault weapons,” Ms. Rathjen said. “It was the best that we thought we could expect.”
It didn’t last. The list of prohibited models was not updated when new models entered the market, and the Conservative government of Stephen Harper scrapped the long-gun registry.
The Trudeau government won’t specify which models it plans to ban, but is doing little to tamp down the hopes of École Polytechnique survivors. “Military-style assault rifles have been used tragically to target women and students,” said Scott Bardsley, spokesman for Public Safety Minister Bill Blair’s office. “As promised to Canadians in the recent election, we will ban military-style assault rifles – and will have more to say in due course.”
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