After a gunman armed with a semi-automatic rifle and 30-round magazine killed 14 women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique in 1989, Canada’s Parliament was plunged into a debate on how to stop it from recurring.
By the end of 1991, a package of gun legislation designed to respond to the massacre, backed by then-Justice Minister Kim Campbell, made it into law. One key part of the new law restricted the number of rounds rifle and pistol magazines were allowed to hold. Most semi-automatic rifles were limited to five rounds; handguns were limited to 10.
“You want to reduce the wounding and killing capacity of the types of firearms that are typically used in these sorts of suicides-by-police or massacres,” said John Dixon, who worked as a senior policy adviser on gun control in Campbell’s office. “Invariably they’re semi-automatic firearms with very large magazine capacities so that the assailant doesn’t need to pause or stop to reload.”
“It was not a hugely contentious issue in Canada.”
Larger magazines have no use in semi-automatic hunting rifles, he argues.
“It’s helpful if you’re hunting on a college campus – if you’re interested in killing a very large number of people, without them having an opportunity to overpower you or flee.”
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Stricter limits for handguns were discussed and rejected at the time, Dixon said. “Ten rounds seemed to be reasonable to everybody.”
The thinking, he explains, was that rifles are more reliably lethal from a longer range, and many of the handguns already in Canada at the time were designed for 10-round magazines.
The limits seemed settled for years. It says very clearly in the RCMP safety manual given to people studying for a gun license that it’s against the law to fire more than five rounds from a semi-automatic rifle.
It was a federal government talking point after the mass shooting in Newtown, Ct. last December in which 26 people were killed, most of them young children.
“Rifles with high-capacity magazines holding more than 5 rounds, such as those used in the recent tragedy in Connecticut, are prohibited in Canada,” a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said in an email at the time.
But in the intervening decades, firearms evolved. Canada’s gun laws did not.
Read: Outdated gun laws pose ‘risk to public safety’ secret government memo warns
Eventually the RCMP was asked whether it would be legal to put more than five rounds of rifle-type ammunition in a magazine designed for a handgun, and fire it from a rifle.
Handguns like this do exist. The image below shows an LAR-15 pistol, which is really a kind of miniature rifle.
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In Canada, a handgun is supposed to be “aimed and fired by the action of one hand,” but you’ll notice the man firing an LAR-15 pistol in this video finds it easier to brace the buffer tube against his shoulder, implying that he is finding the weapon too heavy and cumbersome to fire accurately one-handed.
In March of 2011, the RCMP issued a special bulletin clarifying this rule: When it comes to magazine capacity, it said, the Criminal Code is concerned with the kind of firearm the magazine was designed for, not what firearm it might be used in.
In practical terms, that means that if the ten-round magazine for the LAR-15 pistol will fit in a semi-automatic rifle, it’s perfectly legal to use it that way. But using a functionally identical 10-round magazine not stamped for pistol use could lead to a criminal charge of possession of a prohibited device, and up to 10 years in prison.
Many firearms dealers in Canada can sell you an LAR-15 pistol magazine – a Barrie-based online store had 177 in stock on June 6, according to its website. They cost $27.99, but the 10-pack is a better deal, at $199.90. As far as we could find, nobody in Canada can actually sell you an LAR-15 pistol.
The guns are very rare in this country – we found 75 of them in our copy of the firearms registry out of eight million guns registered in Canada as of last spring. It’s kind of like parts for an unusual car being fairly easy to come by, even if the car itself is not.
The U.S.-made Beowulf heavy rifle is similarly unusual: You can’t buy it at Canadian retailers, but its magazines are in high demand: Secondhand magazines can sell for as much as $250 online, and retail stores can’t keep them in stock.
Beowulf magazines are designed to hold five rounds of bullets that are more than twice the size of a normal rifle bullet.
This brings us to two questions: How many rounds of much smaller rifle cartridges could you fit in this magazine? And if you fired them out of a different rifle, would that be legal?
Now you have 15 rounds of rifle ammunition in a rifle magazine – three times the capacity Parliament had in mind 20 years ago.
As for the second question, a spokesperson for the federal Justice Department confirmed to Global News that using a Beowulf magazine as a higher-capacity magazine for a lighter-calibre semi-automatic rifle is legal.
On the other hand, if you put 15 rounds of 5.56 bullets in a rifle magazine that doesn’t say “Beowulf .50” on the bottom, that’s illegal. If it’s a second offence, there are mandatory minimums involved.
And putting that many bullets in a rifle magazine at all would be illegal in six US states, as well as Washington, DC.
Neither side of the gun control debate is happy with the situation as it stands.
Gun control advocates want the five-round limit to be reasserted. Gun rights advocates are concerned about gun owners being entangled in a confusing system in which otherwise identical magazines could be legal or illegal depending on what’s stamped on the bottom. Get it wrong, and that could mean prison time.
“I think it’s nuts, and I’m shocked to hear it,” said Dixon, who helped craft these laws 20-plus years ago. “What the hell is Parliament doing? Why are they sitting on their hands?”
Toews’ office denied an interview request. “High capacity magazines are prohibited in Canada,” spokesman Andrew McGrath said in an email. “Magazines designed or manufactured for semi-automatic firearms are limited to five rounds.”
Gun rights advocates say this just proves that having magazine limits is pointless in the first place.
“There is no logical reason to have limits on magazine capacity when it is so easy for anyone with any criminal intent whatsoever to circumvent them,” said Ottawa-based firearms lawyer Solomon Friedman. “A 30-round magazine … becomes a legal device by placing a rivet in the spine of the magazine limiting it to five rounds, which can be removed in three seconds with a power drill.”
In theory, he said, if a Beowulf pistol were made – with room for 10 rounds of oversized .50-caliber bullets – it could be filled with smaller bullets and use as a legal 30-round rifle magazine.
Meantime, he added, the situation as it stands creates a legalistic trap for law-abiding gun-owners.
“We have two million gun owners who are expected to be governed by these laws that our lawmakers can’t figure out. Think about the person who buys this at a gun show, because at the time it was perfectly legal, and next thing you know is the subject of a criminal charge and is facing a maximum of ten years in jail.”
But for Heidi Rathjen, who remembers firsthand the chaos of Lepine’s shooting spree, enforcing the original magazine limits is a “critical” step in preventing similar shootings.
“Fire power has certain limits. We have to keep those limits as small as possible to make it as hard as possible for people to do so much damage so easily and so quickly.”
Note: For the demonstration, we used magazines bought online from Canadian sources and inert dummy cartridges made for the purpose of the exercise from real components.
“Dummy ammunition is generally considered an unregulated product, if totally inert,” RCMP Sgt. Julie Gagnon told Global News. Magazines can be freely bought and sold without a firearms licence.
In-depth, interactive: Loopholes – an investigative series on Canada’s gun laws