Skip to main content

A man armed with an arsenal that included semi-automatic, assault-style rifles went to two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, this month, hunting Muslims. Alone, he killed 50 people in a matter of minutes. All he had to do was keep pulling the trigger.

Weapons of a similar lethality are available for legal sale in Canada. Anyone who takes a gun-safety course, applies for a Possession and Acquisition Licence (PAL) and passes a police background check can buy a long list of so-called non-restricted weapons. The list includes the German-made GSG-MP40 – a .22-calibre, semi-automatic rifle modelled on a type you see slung across the waists of German soldiers in Second World War movies. Its magazine holds 23 rounds.

This non-restricted weapon, along with regular hunting guns and rifles, does not need to be registered under Canada’s Firearms Act.

If you want something with even more firepower, and are willing to jump through extra bureaucratic hoops, there are weapons like the Bushmaster Quick Response Carbine Semiautomatic Tactical Rifle, on sale now. It’s a commercial version of a modern military assault rifle, and is classified in Canada as a restricted weapon. That means the purchaser has to take a second safety course, go through additional screening and apply for a Restricted PAL. The weapon must be registered with police, and its magazine is limited to five rounds.

The restricted conditions apply to a range of legally available semi-automatic rifles modelled on the AR-15, an American military assault weapon developed in the 1950s. This is the kind of gun used in a striking number of mass-victim shootings in the United States: Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012; San Bernardino, Calif., in 2015; the Las Vegas slaughter in 2017; and the Parkland, Fla., high-school shooting last year. It fires a round – the Remington .223 – that is high-velocity and highly destructive of human flesh.

Canada’s restricted conditions also apply to range of legal semi-automatic handguns.

In 2017, there were 907,362 restricted firearms registered in Canada, according to the RCMP Commissioner of Firearms. There were another 183,068 prohibited weapons, which are otherwise banned firearms that were registered before Dec. 1, 1998, and which people can own, sell and lend thanks to a grandfather clause in the law. They include fully automatic weapons and military-grade assault rifles.

There is no record of how many unrestricted guns there are, though, thanks to the decision by the Harper government to end the national long-gun registry in 2012. And of course, there is no registry of illegal weapons.

What is known is that Canada is second in the world to only the United States in the number of guns legally imported every year, according to the 2017 Small Arms Survey.

The same survey estimated there are almost 13 million civilian-owned guns in Canada, or about 35 for every 100 people. Canada ranks fifth in the world, based on that metric.

All this to say that there are a lot of guns in Canada, including military-style semi-automatic rifles. Their magazine size is limited under the law, but a determined person can easily get around that.

This month, in the wake of the Christchurch massacre, the New Zealand government moved swiftly to ban semi-automatic military-style assault rifles that can accommodate large magazines.

In Canada, the government is close to passing a bill that would stiffen some of the rules around legal gun ownership. But is that enough to limit opportunities for mass shootings? Does it reduce the likelihood of guns being used in other crimes? The Liberals are also pondering a ban on handguns and semi-automatic military-style assault weapons.

There are a lot of questions about guns in Canada right now, and not just because of the Christchurch tragedy. We are living in the aftermath of the mass shooting on Danforth Avenue in Toronto last summer, which was carried out with illegal handguns, and the massacre at a Quebec City mosque in 2017, where the killer was a licensed owner using legally purchased guns.

At the same time, here’s a surprising statistic: Despite the huge number of guns owned by Canadians, only about a third of murders in recent years involved a firearm.

Canada’s gun-control system is not a sham. It works. But could it work better?

We’ll look at this in more detail, later this week.