Blake Brown is a professor in the department of history at Saint Mary’s University.
The decision of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to carry out his 2019 campaign promise to prohibit many semi-automatic rifles has sparked another round in the gun-control debate. Gun lobby groups allege that advocates of stronger firearm laws unfairly label firearms such as the AR-15 “assault rifles.” Historical evidence, however, suggests that members of the firearms community have themselves played word games with guns, changing how they describe some weapons in response to shifting political winds. In fact, many gun owners once called the AR-15 and similar weapons assault rifles. They only abandoned this term because of fears that the federal government might ban these firearms in the aftermath of the 1989 Montreal Massacre.
A search of Canadian newspapers in the 1970s and 1980s reveals a widely held, though colloquial, understanding that an assault rifle was a semi-automatic weapon with a large capacity magazine that was often a civilian version of a gun originally designed for military service.
Let me point to just a few of the examples of gun retailers and owners using the assault rifle label. In the Calgary Herald in 1976, a seller offered an “AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle.” In 1982, an Edmonton company, MilArm, advertised “Assault Rifles” including AR-15s and Ruger Mini-14s. Klondike Arms & Antiques of Edmonton sold the “Colt AR-15 Semi Auto Assault rifle” in 1983. The Montreal Gazette ran an advertisement for an “AR-15A2 semi-automatic assault rifle” in 1985.
In 1986, the Firing Line Ltd. Shooting Range Gun Store in Calgary sold “Assault Rifles” including the AR-15 and Mini-14. Kingsway Firearms of Vancouver sold “assault rifles” such as the AR-15. The Regina Leader-Post included an advertisement in 1990 for an “SKS Assault Rifle,” while in the same year the Edmonton Journal had an ad for an SKS “Semi-auto Assault Rifle.” By contrast, firearm owners and retailers did not describe shotguns or bolt or lever action hunting guns as assault rifles.
However, in the 1990s the firearms community suddenly developed an allergy to calling any civilian firearm an assault rifle. This continues today. Gary Mauser, a prominent gun control opponent, recently offered a very narrow definition of assault rifles, saying they are “military weapons that can fire fully automatically, which means they continue to shoot as long as the trigger is held down.” Since Canada largely banned the civilian possession of automatic guns in the 1970s, he argues that assault rifles are already prohibited.
The adoption of this narrow definition of assault rifles occurred soon after the murder of 14 young women at the École Polytechnique in 1989 by a man armed with a Mini-14. The Montreal Massacre sparked an intense lobbying effort to have semi-automatic rifles banned. The students of Polytechnique famously organized a petition demanding the prohibition of such guns that garnered over 560,000 signatures.
The Progressive Conservative government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney responded with a suite of gun control measures that included the prohibition of some semi-automatic rifles. However, other guns, including the Mini-14 and SKS, remained nonrestricted and thus available to anyone with a basic firearm licence (the SKS rifle remains a nonrestricted weapon even after the recent federal action).
The spike in public concern with such guns after the Montreal tragedy meant that it was suddenly inadvisable to claim that you owned or sold assault rifles. As a result, the gun community increasingly rebranded them “modern sporting rifles” to make these weapons sound less threatening.
In the end, what we call these firearms does not really matter. What matters is the extent to which semi-automatic guns should be widely available. That is an important policy question. Such guns have played a role in most of Canada’s worst mass shootings, including in the recent murder of 22 people in Nova Scotia. Trying to confuse people by saying that assault rifles are already banned is not helpful.
Several jurisdictions, including Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, have banned civilian ownership of most of these weapons after tragic mass shootings. In the months ahead, Canadians will debate the decision of the federal government to prohibit many semi-automatic rifles. In that debate, feel free to call these firearms “assault rifles” – many gun owners used to do the same.
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