Did deleted long gun data tell the story of Ottawa gunman’s rifle?

Sources identify the suspected shooter as 32-year-old Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. Twitter screengrab

How did a man under a court order not to possess firearms, with a long criminal record that would have put a gun licence out of reach in any case, living in an Ottawa homeless shelter with little privacy, manage to get his hands on a hunting rifle and conceal it?

Residents of the Ottawa homeless shelter where Michael Zehaf-Bibeau spent his final days were asking themselves the same thing.

“How the hell do you bring a rifle inside,” a shelter with such scant privacy, where six or eight men sleep in bunks in one room, resident Robert Duval asked Global News reporters yesterday.

“You can’t even smuggle a beer up there without somebody knowing.”

And who owned the lever-action Winchester rifle before it came into his hands? There are a couple of possibilities.

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Zehaf-Bibeau got the rifle used to kill a soldier at Ottawa’s Cenotaph by: stealing it, being given it, or buying it from an individual. (He’s very unlikely to have bought it from a business, which would have asked to see his gun licence.)

If he bought it from an individual, the seller had very few responsibilities, other than not having a reason to believe that the buyer does not have a gun licence, and making sure the buyer seems sober.

Michael Zehaf-Bibeau is shown here in his high school yearbook photo. Courtesy of La Presse

The lever-action rifle, the earliest practical repeating rifle to be invented, went into large-scale production in 1873 and has changed very little since then.

Here’s how they work:

A shooter loads up to seven rounds into the rear of a long tubular magazine under the barrel, one by one. After firing, the shooter flips the lever forward and back to eject the spent casing and chamber an unfired round.

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In 2012, before the long gun registry was deleted outside Quebec, 775,278 lever-action rifles were registered across the country. They are Canada’s third most popular type of rifle, after bolt-action and semi-automatic rifles.

In general, they are classified legally as ‘non-restricted firearms,’ along with most mainstream rifles and shotguns used by hunters and farmers. Non-restricted guns had to be registered until 2012, when ownership records outside Quebec were destroyed. The destroyed data may have included the purchase and ownership history of Zehaf-Bibeau’s Winchester.

The fate of Quebec’s long gun registry is still before the courts. The Supreme Court heard arguments on Oct. 8 about Quebec’s registry, which the federal government wants to destroy and the Quebec government want to save, and reserved judgement.

However, the Quebec registry is still a tool investigators could potentially make use of, if the rifle was owned by a Quebec resident at some point.

In principle, lost or stolen firearms should be recorded in CPIC, the national police information database. In practice, retired OPP Staff-Sgt. Doug Carlson explained last year, that depends on good record-keeping on the gun owner’s part, which may or may not happen.

While a lever-action rifle’s action can be cycled – fired and reloaded – very quickly, rounds must be loaded individually, a time-consuming process. In other words, once Zehaf-Bibeau had used up his ammunition he had no way of quickly reloading, as he would have with a magazine-fed semi-automatic rifle, or (conceivably) loading a bolt-action rifle with a stripper clip.

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The implication is that Zehaf-Bibeau wasn’t able to pick and choose the rifle for his attack, but had to make do with what was available. Once he’d fired the seven rounds in the rifle’s tube magazine, and police were confronting him, his options were basically to surrender or die.

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