Canadians control arms while Americans amass them
By Eribet Loehner in Vancouver
By now we are likely all aware of the horrific mass shooting that recently occurred in Las Vegas in the US; 58 innocent people killed and 549 injured.
According to this website, the perpetrator was a lone gunman who had no criminal record or history of mental illness. His considerable arsenal was legally purchased.
But while the mass killings continue in the US, the situation north of the border is as different as chalk from cheese.
How can these things happen?
Just why are the Americans so obsessed with guns of all calibres? And again the question is asked “How could this happen?” and again we are reminded of the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The oft incompletely quoted amendment states that “the right of the people to bear arms shall not be infringed.”
It is this section of the Bill of Rights, adopted in 1791, at a time when the risk of an attack by Britain was still a concern that allows such violence to occur today. Any attempt by a municipal or state government to control gun ownership is taken to court where it forced to confront nothing less than the US Constitution.
Legal costs are usually subsidized by the National Rifle Association. This is a highly political organization with a vast membership and deep pockets. It counters virtually any attempt to restrict the people’s access to firearms.
Prior to the American Revolutionary War, the American colonies did not have much of a standing army. Indeed most of the domestic army consisted of disparate militia units that supported the British Army based in North America.
Once the Declaration of independence was enacted, members of these militia units joined to form the Continental Army. The British quickly reinforced their meager military forces, by either sending troops from England or hiring German mercenaries. The Continental Army was usually outnumbered, so it developed unique tactics that could surprise or outflank their opponents.
The militias formed small groups called the “minutemen”, essentially a rapid response group whose members kept their uniforms and rifles at home while they carried on with their regular work. Once notified, they could quickly form a contingent to confront the advancing British Army.
The right to bear arms
The right to bear arms is critical to this type of defence, so it is not surprising that it was added to the US Constitution in 1791. The full text of the Second Amendment is “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”
This hardly gives the right to every US citizen to personally stockpile an arsenal, not to mention that this form of defence is now totally obsolete. However, the US Supreme Court tends to see things differently.
So, with such a well established gun culture just south of us, how does Canada deal with gun ownership? Well, first of all the “right to bear arms” is not enshrined in the Canadian Constitution.
This is not to say that there are no privately owned guns in Canada. There are enough guns in private hands in Canada to arm about 30% of our population, compared to about 80% in the US.
How Canadian controls work
The private ownership of firearms in Canada is categorized into three groups:
- “Prohibited”, these are miniature pocket pistols and firearms that have a fully automatic function such as machine guns
- “Restricted”, usually pistols, but also some military style assault weapons with barrel lengths of less than 14”
- “Non-restricted”, usually hunting or target shooting sport rifles. Hunting with a Non-restricted firearm also requires a hunting license and tags for the specific species being hunted.
Private ownership of Prohibited firearms is not allowed unless they have been decommissioned and cannot be fired.
Restricted firearms must be registered and a justifiable purpose for owning such a firearm must be filed with the authorities. Self protection is not a justifiable purpose. Target pistols used in competitions are allowed if the owner is a member of a certified shooting club. Allowances can also be made for registered gun collectors.
Non-restricted firearms do not have to be registered and can have a semi-automatic function, but magazine capacity is restricted depending on the model and type of firearm.
Licenses, courses and safe storage
Anyone who wishes to own a firearm or buy ammunition must have a firearms licence for either a Restricted or Non-restricted firearm. It also proves that he, or she, has taken a mandatory course and is capable of safely using and storing a firearm.
While these regulations are not overly restrictive, they seem particularly onerous to most Americans. It is possible to bring non-restricted firearms into Canada from the US, as long as they conform to Canada’s regulations.
It is difficult to bring restricted weapons into Canada, though it can be done with the appropriate paperwork and agreement with Canadian authorities in advance. The firearm must also conform to Canada’s regulations. It is not possible to bring prohibited guns into Canada.
The most important thing to do when entering Canada with a firearm is to declare the weapon to the border security agents. Trying to sneak a firearm into Canada is a criminal offence and an alarming number of Americans are arrested at border crossings every year. Most are very blasé about firearms; some think Canada has the same gun laws as the US. Once found the owner is arrested and the firearm is confiscated and destroyed.
How do the two countries compare?
How does Canada compare to the US in terms of gun violence with these rational restrictions? The greater Vancouver area has 2.3 million inhabitants and about 60 murders per year, but only about half are caused by firearms.
It seems that when firearms are not readily available, Vancouverites find alternate means of committing murder; usually stabbing or bludgeoning.
Houston, Texas, on the other hand, has a population 2.4 million and 300 murders annually. Chicago, Illinois has 2.7 million inhabitants and 750 murders per year.
Clearly the myth of keeping a gun for personal protection lives on.