That's History: History shows Canada’s liberal culture towards guns

The horrific school shooting in Newtown, Conn., has given a new impetus to gun control efforts in the United States. But it’s uncertain whether advocates for new restrictions can make headway against a gun culture supported by expansive readings of the Second Amendment.

In Canada, the state hasn’t had to work around a constitutional right to bear arms, nor do we have a lobby group as powerful as the National Rifle Association. But Canada has its own gun culture, and political opposition to gun control measures can be just as effective as entrenched legal rights in causing the government to water down or abandon such measures.

I learned this from a fascinating new work by Blake Brown, Arming and Disarming: A History of Gun Control in Canada.

According to Brown, colonial and Canadian governments were mostly interested in arming the population and training people to use firearms up to about the First World War. Until the 1870s, they wanted to prepare citizens to repel a possible American invasion. Later, they wanted to ensure that Canadian soldiers would be capable of fighting effectively in imperial wars.

There were exceptions to this trend, but restrictions on firearm use or ownership were typically limited in time — during elections or after the rebellions of 1837-38, for example — or targeted particular groups such as Irish canal workers or aboriginals.

After Confederation, Ottawa provided generous financial aid to rifle shooting associations, a fact that led the New York Times to remark enviously in 1872 that “Canada has 45,000 trained marksmen among its volunteer forces, while the United States has none.” When the American NRA emerged in 1871, its founders looked to Canadians for assistance. Canadians even drew up the plans for the first NRA shooting range.

Sir John A. Macdonald was adamantly opposed to state regulation of firearms even though many in his own party worried about the proliferation of cheap, easily concealable handguns. He believed the right to carry weapons was an important component of British liberty. As a result, serious regulation had to await his death in 1891.

The Criminal Code of 1892 instituted the beginnings of modern forms of control. It set an age limit of 16 on the ownership of handguns, obliged those carrying pistols to apply annually for a certificate of exemption attesting to their good character, and for the first time required gun sellers to record every purchaser’s name and any identifying marks on the weapon.

After the First World War, concerns about disloyal aliens, Bolsheviks, and social unrest during the Depression led to more aggressive measures. In 1934, the federal government required all owners to register their weapons with the RCMP, but this move aroused little controversy then and hasn’t since. As Brown argues, most mainstream users possessed long guns, not pistols, and didn’t see the registry in place at the time as threatening.

Gun control reached the public agenda again in the late 1960s when a renaissance of interest in hunting collided with urban concerns about firearms of all kinds, not just pistols. By 1973, half of all firearm murders in Canada involved rifles, not handguns. In 1975, three incidents at Ontario schools, all involving rifles wielded by students, left four dead and many injured.

Those events led the government to propose in 1976 that all gun owners obtain a licence with the support of two guarantors attesting to their suitability to own firearms. Despite broad public support and the Liberals’ majority, the measures sparked ferocious opposition by a number of gun advocacy groups. The government backed down: only new gun owners would require a licence and it dropped the need for guarantors.

There were virtually no civil society groups supporting gun control in the 1970s. That would change completely in the aftermath of the Montreal massacre of 1989. The Liberals, however, misspent this political capital when they set up the long-gun registry with inadequate planning. That allowed opponents to reframe the issue as one of government waste rather than reducing gun violence.

The issue, of course, lives on. So whatever your opinions on gun control, Brown’s book is essential to an understanding of the current situation in Canada.

Philip Girard is a legal historian and professor at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law. He’s also associate editor at the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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