I, like the vast majority of Canadians, do not own an AR-15, an AR-10, or a Ruger Mini-14 rifle — nor do I have any desire to. I, like the vast majority of Canadians then, will not be in any way affected if the legal status of these firearms changes.
But that doesn’t and shouldn’t give the government a pass on its plan to ban so-called “assault weapons.” This is probably a political winner for the Liberals, but good politics doesn’t automatically equate to good policy.
The question of how to regulate firearms is inherently subjective and reasonable people can disagree on what is a sufficient balance between protecting the right to own firearms and protecting public safety. Slightly more or slightly less gun control does not mean a slippery slope to complete prohibition or a complete free-for-all. Proposals on either side can be judged on their own merits.
So while the government can try to argue — perhaps convincingly to many Canadians — that it is taking steps to significantly improve public safety, it’s fair to hold that claim up to scrutiny.
The government announced Friday that a number of so-called “military-grade,” “assault-style” firearms were to be banned immediately, via an order-in-council. The full list contains about 1,500 firearms, but most are variations of about a dozen or so semi-automatic rifles.
It should be noted that this is not a ban of all semi-automatic rifles, and it’s still unclear as to what sets these particular rifles apart from those that are not on the list of newly prohibited firearms. There is no clear definition as to what constitutes “military-grade,” nor is there even a clear definition of what constitutes an “assault weapon” in the first place.
People certainly have an idea in their head of what an “assault weapon” is or might be. A poll released Friday shows about 80 per cent of Canadians support a ban on “assault weapons.” The Liberals are well aware of this, and are no doubt happy to let the Conservatives try to articulate a “leave assault weapons alone” position.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday described these firearms as “designed for one purpose and one purpose only: to kill the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time.” This is disingenuous.
Let’s be clear: we are not talking about machine guns or any other kind of automatic weapon. Those are already prohibited in Canada. Semi-automatic firearms are much different than automatic weapons — they fire as quickly as the user can press the trigger. Furthermore, all semi-automatic centre-fire rifles are legally limited to a magazine capacity of five.
So as it pertains to the number of bullets a gun can fire or how quickly it can be fired, there’s little or no difference between the semi-automatic rifles on this list and those that are not.
Trudeau also cited some of the mass shootings that have occurred in Canada, including the recent massacre in Nova Scotia.
It’s true that semi-automatic rifles have been used in some of those mass shootings (not all, mind you — for example, handguns were used in both the 2018 Danforth shootings and the 2017 Quebec mosque massacre. A .22-calibre rifle was used in the La Loche school shootings). But it’s not yet been disclosed what weapons were used by the Nova Scotia gunman.
Either way, police have said that he was likely not a legal firearms owner.
More broadly, though, it does not appear that legally owned semi-automatic rifles are a significant component of the gun violence problem in Canada. For all the notoriety the AR-15 has acquired over the years, there seems to be no evidence of its use in any homicides in Canada.
In 2018, there were 249 gun-related murders in Canada and 143 of them involved handguns — just 56 involved some type of rifle or shotgun. That’s not to argue for a national handgun ban, necessarily, but it’s worth noting that the Liberal government has specifically rejected the idea.
The Liberals, though, did campaign on this promise to ban “assault weapons,” and it’s unlikely to hurt their poll numbers. But popular policies are not always effective. There’s good reason to doubt that this will be.