David Bercuson is director of the University of Calgary's Centre for Military and Strategic Studies and a senior fellow of CDFAI.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's appearance at a meeting of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities last week has sparked off a mini-storm with his declaration that gun ownership in rural areas "wasn't just for the farm. It was also for a certain level of security when you're a ways from immediate police assistance."
The Prime Minister's words were obviously meant to curry favour with Western Canadian firearm owners ahead of a fall election. They also set off a firestorm with the usual anti-gun crowd, including Liberal MP Wayne Easter, who concluded that Mr. Harper's words were an open invitation to Canadian gun owners to shoot people trespassing on their property.
Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition for Gun Control, declared that Mr. Harper's statement "smacks of American arming for self-protection."
Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, a small-game hunter himself, warned that "a country where lots of guns are circulating is not a country the majority of Canadians and Quebeckers want to live in."
Amen to that. But that's not what the Prime Minister was advocating and it's not a reflection of the very reasonable gun-control laws that Canadians are used to and comply with every day.
Here's a reality: In most Canadian cities, municipal police will arrive at the door of a threatened homeowner within five or six minutes. The distances are small, police cars and helicopters are linked to well-functioning 911 systems, and citizens have every reason to expect they will be protected by police in almost any circumstance imaginable.
That's simply not true in vast areas of rural Canada. Where I live, it could take the RCMP 45 minutes or longer to respond to an emergency call. They have a very large area to patrol and only half a dozen cars to cover it all at any one time. If a home out here is broken into, good luck hiding in the basement and hoping that the trespasser is only interested in stealing your television rather than harming you or your family.
Does that mean that people in rural areas should have a loaded shotgun over their front door as they might have had 100 years ago? Of course not. But it does mean that if someone living in a rural area believes that their family members' lives are in danger, they might well be justified in using a firearm in self-defence. It's pretty hard to imagine a situation where such a person would say "Wait, if I can't prove that my life is in danger, I could be arrested for murder, so I'd better wait to see if the trespasser draws down on me. If he does, I can shoot, but if he is just pretending, I'll be in jail a long, long time." Really?
Canada has a very reasonable system of gun control. There are aspects that could be clearer. There are portions that are just silly – such as allowing guns with barrels of 4.5 inches but not 4 inches – and parts that are very arbitrary. But the emphasis on gun safety, safe gun storage and safe use of firearms for sport or hunting works very well. And here's what most gun critics never mention: No one in Canada can legally buy a gun unless he or she has undergone a rigorous safety course, a thorough police background check, received the written permission of any "significant other" in their lives, attested to their mental condition and been awarded a federal Possession and Acquisition Licence by the provincial firearms safety officer and the RCMP. Only then can some kinds of firearms be purchased. Indeed, no one is allowed to legally buy ammunition without showing their PAL.
This country isn't about to emulate the over-the-top gun ownership laws (or lack of them) in many parts of the United States. Neither Mr. Harper nor the vast majority of Canadian gun owners want that. So the only real issue here lies in the grey area of what is a legitimate use of a firearm for self-defence.