The federal government is currently sitting on a report from Bill Blair, the Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction, based on consultations he carried out last year on the possibility of banning handguns and so-called assault weapons.
We will discuss banning handguns in an editorial to come. For the moment, in the wake of the massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, the focus is on the kind of weapon a lone man used to kill 50 people in a matter of minutes.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, is being praised by many for moving quickly to ban military-style semi-automatic weapons that can accommodate large magazines. She is also being pilloried by gun-rights advocates, who say the ban won’t make people safer, but will punish law-abiding gun owners.
In Canada, Mr. Blair’s mandate was inspired partly by the killing of six Muslims in a mosque in Quebec City in 2017, a hate crime carried out with a military-style semi-automatic rifle. The shooter wounded 19 other victims, two of them critically. He hit 25 human targets in a very short time.
That is the nature of these weapons: They were designed to kill lots of people, quickly. The shooter can attach a magazine that holds dozens of rounds, and he can fire as quickly as he can pull the trigger.
Another feature of a lot of these guns, most of which are based on military models, is that they fire a high-velocity round powerful enough to disintegrate flesh and bone, but small enough to limit recoil to a minimum. A person firing into a crowd doesn’t have to re-aim after each shot.
In Canada, many military-style semi-automatic rifles are classified as restricted. To purchase one, a person with a standard gun permit, the possession and acquisition licence (PAL), must take a specialized training course and receive a Restricted PAL, and can only fire the weapon at a registered shooting range. The magazine size is restricted to five rounds. The gun must be registered with the RCMP and requires a transport permit each time it is moved.
But in Canada’s strangely inconsistent gun classifications, some semi-automatic rifles with a military bloodline only require a standard PAL, which means they don’t have to be registered and can be purchased and used with few restrictions.
Take, for instance, the Ruger Mini-14. That’s the gun Marc Lépine used to systematically murder 14 women at École Polytechnique in Montreal in 1989. A licensed gun owner can purchase one today and start shooting tomorrow.
Or consider the Beretta Cx4 Storm. That’s the semi-automatic rifle Kimveer Gill used in 2006 to murder one person and injure 19 others at Dawson College in Montreal. It was a restricted weapon until the manufacturer lengthened the barrel by a half-inch and put it into the unrestricted category.
The semi-automatic rifles used in the killing of three RCMP officers in Moncton, N.B., in 2014 and in the Quebec City mosque attack are also non-restricted firearms. Both shooters were licensed and had passed background checks. In Quebec, the shooter added an illegal 30-round magazine.
As the government ponders whether or not to ban what it calls “assault weapons,” it should not get hung up on the fact Canada doesn’t have a legal definition of the term.
It should instead recall the attack on Parliament Hill in 2014, in which a lone gunman murdered one person before being killed in Centre Block. The casualty toll was low because he was armed with a lever-action hunting rifle that held, at most, nine bullets. It was slow-firing and painstakingly time-consuming to reload. It simply was not a weapon capable of perpetrating the kind of rapid-fire carnage that occured in Christchurch or Quebec City.
Canada’s gun laws manage basic hunting rifles like that intelligently and don’t need to change. But they are neither smart nor consistent regarding far more dangerous semi-automatic rifles, many of which (the restricted ones) have the very limited purpose under the law of being used for pleasure or sport shooting, or as a collectible.
At the very least, all of them should be classified as restricted weapons, regardless of bullet size or design heritage. But given the threat they pose, there’s a strong argument for banning them altogether.
Would doing so eliminate the possibility of a mass shooting in Canada? No. But at least the government wouldn’t be increasing the odds of by allowing widespread public ownership of guns designed to kill people quickly and efficiently.