In a recent article, Blake Brown maintained that “assault-style” rifles should be restricted, citing police concerns, although he never quite gets around to explaining what an “assault-style” rifle might be. Minister Bill Blair has conducted nation-wide consultations to see what Canadians think about banning similar types of firearms. In this article I contend that fanning fears about “assault-style” rifles merely diverts attention from more serious problems that Canadians need to face.
What are “assault-style” rifles and why should Canadians be frightened of them? Brown variously refers to “assault-style” rifles, “military-style weapons,” and “semi-automatic” rifles as if these terms all referred to the same type of firearm. They do not. His confusing language unduly stokes fears about civilian ownership of firearms.
“Assault rifles” are military weapons that can fire “fully automatically,” which means they continue to shoot as long as the trigger is held down. Such firearms have long been prohibited to Canadian civilians; they are not used by the police, and even gangsters rarely find them useful. According to StatsCan, just 2 out of 266 firearms homicides were reported to involve a full-automatic firearm in 2017. And these instances may be errors.
In contrast, semi-automatic rifles require a separate trigger press to fire a shot, like any other firearm. Millions of Canadians legally own and use firearms responsibly, including semi-automatic firearms. Most police forces in Canada are equipped with the same semi-automatic rifles that properly licensed and vetted Canadians can buy. While anti-firearms lobby groups call them “assault weapons,” the police call them “patrol carbines.” Minister Blair recently acted apologetic for using the term“assault weapon” because it was misleading.
Firearms, like any other tool, can be misused, as can be seen in lurid headlines. But headlines are misleading. According to StatsCan, firearms are rarely used (under 1%) in violent crime. It does not make news but firearms play a vital role in Canadian society. Over two million Canadian civilians – men and women – own and use firearms every day in a safe and responsible manner. Hunters use firearms for putting food on the family table; many families enjoy target shooting; farmers and orchardist rely upon firearms to protect their livestock, crops, and other property from predators, and many households rely upon firearms to deter criminals. Generations of young people have learned to accept personal responsibility through taking firearms safety courses. Canada’s Olympic athletes use semi-automatic firearms. In 1984 Linda Thom won Olympic gold with a semi-auto pistol.
Canada has strict firearms laws. To own a firearm, Canadians must undergo stringent screening to obtain a licence and again when they renew it every five years. Every night, law-abiding firearms owners are checked by the police for complaints or warrants against them. Handguns (and some semi-automatic long guns) are registered and can only be transported unloaded, with a trigger lock, and in a locked container to specified locations (e.g., gun shops and target ranges). Canada’s firearms regime cost taxpayers over $2 billion, even though no convincing evidence has been found demonstrating that clamping down on law-abiding citizens has acted to reduce criminal violence.
It is not evident what advantage can be gained from further tinkering with the current firearms law, either in Bill C-71 or by banning either handguns or semi-automatic firearms. In February 1995, the Canadian government banned over one half of then-legal handguns, but this ban did not reduce handgun murders. Handguns continue to be the weapon of choice for criminals, and the fastest growing type of firearm used in homicide.
Under then-President Bill Clinton, the United States banned “assault weapons.” Ten years later, a National Academies study could not find convincing evidence that the ban had any beneficial effect. Nor did an international review of firearms laws find any examples of effective firearm bans.
Concerns about “assault style firearms” are overblown. Mass murders are rare and are not limited to firearms. Ordinary vans are surprisingly popular in London, England or in Europe, as well as in Canada. Vans, like all automobiles, are already heavily regulated, but they can still be exploited by criminals or terrorists. The worst mass murder in Canada involved arson. Unsurprisingly, gasoline remains readily available. Unfortunately, in our Twitter world attacks involving firearms attract attention far out of proportion to their actual threat.
Focusing on scary-looking firearms diverts attention from more serious problems. Rural Canada is in crisis. Unemployment rates are painfully high in some provinces, not just in Alberta; unemployment is particularly troubling for First Nations people. Despite overwhelming support for pipelines among the First Nations, construction continues to be delayed. All of the first nations along the pipeline have concluded agreements that will provide jobs for their people. Unemployment is not just an economic issue. Suicide rates are shockingly high among First Nations people, particularly in the Prairie Provinces. More resources are desperately needed.
Canada is facing a serious mental health crisis. Necessary resources are woefully inadequate for the large numbers of people with unmet needs. Mental health problems are particularly acute among new Canadians, First Nations, and seniors. It is important make clear that mental health problems are a “quality of life” issue, not a public safety risk. Few mentally ill people constitute a “high risk” population, posing little risk of harm to themselves or to others. However, certain populations have problematic access to mental health services and are more likely to be a public safety risk. Stats Can reports that one in 7 accused murderers is mentally ill, and the majority of mass killers exhibit serious mental problems.
The focus on “assault style” firearms may even be a red herring to distract attention from the failure of Canada’s police agencies to cope with existential challenges, such as escalating gang violence, money laundering in casinos and property markets, and threats from Chinese cyber attacks.
To conclude, we need to recognize that worries about “scary looking” firearms may just be an epiphenomenon. Other problems are fundamentally more important.