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Canada’s new gun “ban” is not a ban.

It might sound like a ban to urbanites who are unfamiliar with Canada’s labyrinth of federal gun regulations, and indeed, the government is quite deliberate in repeatedly using that word to describe its recent actions – “ban.”

But the change announced last week does not, in any meaningful way, represent a major shift in the overall way Canada treats the purchase, storage and use of firearms. So if you’ve been cheering Ottawa’s new gun “prohibition” as the end of the legal sale of military-conceived deadly weapons … well, I’m sorry to tell you this, but you’ve been had. Meticulously misleading government messaging will do that.

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Semi-automatic weapons are still legal. Let me say that again. Semi-automatic weapons are still legal.

Firearms in Canada are either prohibited (cannot be bought or sold), restricted (legal under certain conditions) or non-restricted. Fully automatic weapons have been illegal since 1978. Not much has changed there.

What changed, last week, was that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the list of prohibited weapons in Canada would be expanded to include a number of previously restricted and non-restricted firearms. He called this a ban on “military-style assault rifles.”

But that’s a designation that has no meaning in Canadian law under the Firearms Act. It is, rather, a made-up, undefined category, useful only in perpetuating the mistaken impression that Canada has banned a whole classification of firearms when it has not.

Again, Canada has not banned semi-automatic weapons. Instead, it has banned nine principal models and their variants, essentially expanding the list of prohibited weapons by roughly 1,500 models. Yet there are still plenty of other semi-automatic weapons – such as the military-style IWI Tavor, which looks just as scary as those newly prohibited – that remain perfectly legal.

Mr. Trudeau and his ministers skirted this inconvenient detail by sticking closely to their line about banning “military-grade assault weapons.” The more accurate way to describe what the government did is to say that it arbitrarily prohibited the sale of some semi-automatics, while preserving the status of others. Yet the government knows the misleading messaging is far more rousing than the precise kind. Already, the announcement has earned the applause of celebrities and American progressive politicians.

Indeed, the government trusts that those to whom this gesture is supposed to appeal won’t really know the difference. That’s why Mr. Trudeau could say last Friday that “you don’t need an AR-15 to bring down a deer," even though hunters in Canada already weren’t allowed to use an AR-15 (or other restricted firearms) to do so. It’s also why he could talk about banning “guns designed to kill the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time” in reference to semi-automatic weapons, although he was actually describing fully automatic weapons, which were banned decades ago.

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I point all of this out not as someone who has any interest in guns or particularly understands their appeal, but as someone who doesn’t like governments seizing upon knowledge gaps in the population to earn political clout.

One could make the case that something – that is, the banning of some semi-automatic weapons under the guise of more generalized action – is better than nothing. But that argument assumes that law-abiding gun owners won’t simply start buying up the semi-automatic firearms the government omitted from its list.

It also assumes that the government hasn’t now squandered what might have been a useful alliance with legal gun owners on promised future plans to crack down on handgun crimes, the purchase of firearms for those who don’t have licences and the illegal smuggling of guns from across the border. Evidence-based policy, which was purportedly the domain of the Liberals once upon a time, would suggest those prospective, to-be-Parliament-approved measures would have a much greater impact on the preponderance of firearms-related crimes in Canada.

On guns, as on most things, political capital is not infinite. The government has decided to make a big splash on an arbitrary measure that has incited legal gun owners, yet still preserves the legal status of semi-automatics and also doesn’t touch the guns involved in the majority of crimes involving firearms in Canada. The impulse to want to do something after the mass shooting in Nova Scotia earlier this month is understandable. But deceiving Canadians into thinking the government has outlawed all menacing-looking, military-inspired semi-automatic weapons is not worthy, or righteous, or deserving of any type of applause.

If this government was to expend some political capital on guns, it should do it on measures that will actually make a difference – and not on marginal gestures it can speciously sell as a “ban.”

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