Canadian gun owners bought unprecedented numbers of handguns after the Liberals won the 2015 federal election.
In December 2015, in the aftermath of the election, 7,600 handguns were registered with the RCMP, 1,400 more than in November. Monthly handgun registrations have topped 7,000 eight times since the election. Before the election, sales never reached that level.
The Liberals were elected on a gun control platform that included stricter background checks on would-be handgun owners.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale briefed Liberal MPs on the government’s gun control plans in February. They have not been made public.
A redacted copy of the firearms registry was released to Global News by the RCMP under access-to-information laws.
Restricted rifles (which include some semi-automatic rifles, like the AR-15, but not all of them) show a similar pattern. Monthly registrations topped 1,000 for first time in October 2015, the month of the election, again in December after the Liberals won, and twice more since then.
The pattern is similar to one seen repeatedly in the United States, where gun sales spike after events that gun owners fear may lead to tightened gun control:
“Obama was very good for gun sales, because the NRA had a boogeyman,” explains University of Toronto professor Jooyoung Lee, an expert on gun violence.
“They had a president that they could create messaging around, and they used Obama as a ploy to say ‘He’s going to take your guns away,’ which of course never happens. The fear of a liberal president enacting legislation that would result in lawful owners losing their handguns and different kinds of guns was always there, and that’s something that was great for business.”
In Canada, the uptick after the 2015 election has to be disentangled from the rise in handgun ownership more generally.
More and more Canadians own handguns — restricted handguns owned by individuals increased by 46 per cent in just five years, from 467,146 in 2012 to 684,152 in early 2017.
The first part qualifies someone to own most rifles and shotguns, and an optional second part qualifies them to own handguns and restricted rifles. Many people come in to do the first part and are upsold to do both parts.
“When you have a firearms safety course and a restricted firearms safety course, and there’s a possibility to do them as a one-shot deal or over a weekend, a lot of people say ‘Hey, why not do it all in one shot?’”
Another cause has to do with the decline in hunting, which many rifles and shotguns were originally bought for.
“The number of people who own firearms for hunting purposes has been declining, and the number of people owning firearms for various shooting sports is increasing. If you get a handgun, you can get into a lot of the fun action sports. They seem to be growing.”
Also, some handgun owners have self-defence in mind, though they’re not very open about it.
“In public people deny it, because it’s not considered a valid reason, legally, to own a gun, but in private people are certainly big believers in owning guns for self-defence. It certainly powers gun ownership in the States, and that washes over into Canada.”
Why buy guns that you expect to be banned or restricted in the future?
In the U.S., where handguns often don’t have to be registered, buying them before restrictions are imposed can seem to make a kind of sense, in that the government never knew they existed. In Canada, though, police would know exactly what doors to knock on if specific handguns, or restricted rifles, were banned.
In a Canadian context, Somerset sees several different motivations:
Some guns — automatic weapons and short-barreled handguns — were banned in the 1990s except for people who already owned them. Confusingly, they are called “prohibited firearms,” though they aren’t completely prohibited. (Most handguns have a status of “restricted.”)
If you wanted to own a certain kind of gun, and were expecting this kind of restriction on it, it makes sense from one point of view to go out and buy it while you still can.
But, Somerset points out, a future restriction will more or less destroy its resale value. This happened with prohibited guns, which can only be bought and sold within a tiny, and shrinking, group of people who have a very specific kind of licence.
“People who own prohibited firearms that were grandfathered – a lot of those people are bitter, and feel that they were duped by the government, which said ‘You can keep these things,’ without realizing that the value will be destroyed.”
Some gun owners have made the opposite decision:
“I knew one guy who sold every semi-automatic rifle he owned before the election,” Somerset says. “He said ‘I think Trudeau’s going to ban semi-automatic rifles, and I’m going to sell them now while they still have value.’”
“It seems like a rational response — if you’re convinced that something is going to happen that is going to destroy the value of these rifles, and you have a lot of money in them, it makes sense to sell them when you see it coming and not wait for the panic.”
When Canadian governments have banned a type of gun outright, they have often offered owners compensation. The problem with this is that it gets expensive fast.
So, some gun owners reason, the more of any particular kind of gun is in circulation, the more expensive it is to ban and the larger the group of people affected will be.
(Australia brought in sweeping bans on certain kinds of guns in the country in the 1990s. About 640,000 guns were surrendered, but it cost taxpayers there about $440 million, adjusting for inflation, to compensate their owners. The expropriation was paid for by a one-time nationwide surtax on health care insurance premiums.)
“(If) I expect that the AR-15 will be banned, I go and obstinately buy an AR-15 so that I can, in my mind, add to the cost to the government to compensate for them, and increase the political resistance to that expected ban.”
“In reality, the number of people with restricted firearms licences in Canada who are really agitated about this kind of thing is too small to win elections, which the Liberals well know. They know these people aren’t voting for them anyway. “
The data we have is a snapshot of guns currently registered at a given time, not all guns that have ever been registered. We’ve requested gun licence data twice from the RCMP, once earlier this year, and once in 2012. When you compare the two, it turns out that handgun ownership is fairly stable — about 80 per cent of the people who had a registered handgun in the 2012 data still had it in the 2017 data. In other words, it’s unlikely that we’re missing a significant spike in the past involving guns that have since been given up.Click here to view data »
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