The disastrous shift of gun culture in North America

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How gun culture in the U.S. has influenced Canadian minds and laws

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Unlike the Christian God, the gun lobby was made, not begotten. The National Rifle Association (NRA), which today is generally considered the most powerful lobby in the United States, began as the government's lapdog, an organization created to train men for the army.

Shooting was good and wholesome sport, and attaining some skill at arms the duty of the middle-class male. But as violent crime rose, so did the movement for gun control, which transformed the NRA into the gun lobby we know today.

The Newtonian relationship between gun control and the gun lobby is particularly evident in Canada, where our original equivalent to the NRA -- the Dominion of Canada Rifle Association -- had stuck to its original mandate and faded into obscurity after the Great War. When the gun control movement came along, Canada's gun lobby did not exist. It would be necessary to invent one.

In this excerpt from Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun, author A.J. Somerset expands on his thoughts above and discusses the culture of guns and gun laws in Canada. Somerset also emphasizes how the 1960s and 1970s have informed Canada's current relationship with guns and gun laws.

Please enjoy this excerpt from Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun by A.J. Somerset below.


Canada is subject to all the social and political forces that operate south of the border, but with a maple flavour. Forever in lockstep with American trends, Canada experienced its own turmoil in the 1960s. The United States had race riots and rising crime; Canada had the merry bombers of the FLQ and rising crime. We should hardly be surprised to find Canada reacting just as the United States did, by turning to gun control. And we should hardly be surprised to find Canada reaching for just the same measures, seeking to keep guns away from the criminals and the crazies, while leaving ordinary hunters and target shooters alone. There were, after all, a lot of guns in Canada, a country that, in geographic terms at least, consists mostly of remote areas where people hunt to eat. But in population terms, Canada consists mostly of cities smeared along the southern border, where people simultaneously embrace the United States and cling to a uniquely Canadian identity by rejecting all things American. And this gives gun control in Canada its unique maple flavour: guns and gun ownership are an American problem that must not be allowed to take root in Canada. Gun control in Canada is not just about controlling guns; it's about who gets to call themselves true Canadians.

The great national beaver pond, fed by dozens of swampy seeps, lacks a unifying national mythology. Each drop of pond water on the microscope slide teems with bizarre creatures; the more carefully one attempts to describe them, the more complex the droplet becomes. The problem, to cultural nationalists, was that the pond water was insufficiently pure, and so they set out to purify it according to their vision of Canada. Anything that didn't fit -- anything that smacked of the British Empire or, worse, of the United States -- was just plain un-Canadian. To this day, knee-jerk nationalism twitches with the same reflex. The easiest way to find something distinctly Canadian is to find anything distinctly American, and jump on its opposite.

The nation could not be trusted to define itself. It was to be shaped into perfect Canadianness. And guns were deemed un-Canadian, if only because America was a gun culture: individualist, gun-obsessed, violent. The NRA and its American ideas had to be stopped at the border. And the most prominent of those American ideas was, of course, the right to keep and bear arms. In 1885, Liberal MP David Mills, who would later sit on the Supreme Court of Canada, had risen in the House of Commons to argue that Canadians enjoyed a right to own firearms, and that the Second Amendment was in fact merely an American copy of a right that Canadians, as British subjects, already enjoyed. But in the 1970s, the right to keep and bear arms was seen as an unfortunate anachronism promoted by wingnuts addicted to violence, an anachronism that had come to define America. And since owning a gun was American, it sure as hell couldn't be Canadian.

It scarcely mattered that Canadians owned a lot of guns, as befits a frontier nation where, in remote areas, you either eat what you hunt or pay through the nose for food flown in on aircraft of dubious reliability. Canada's cultural nationalists hauled hunting before the House Committee on Un-Canadian Activities, on the grounds of it having something to do with something American; to wit, guns. Hunting itself was now deemed un-Canadian.

Margaret Atwood laid out the case in 1972 in Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. "The central symbol for Canada … is undoubtedly Survival, la Survivance" -- her use of the French a shameless attempt to make common cause with Quebec and invent a unified Canadian culture where none, in fact, existed or exists. Canadians do not tame the frontier, as Americans do. They endure it. The central theme of Canada's history -- literary culture being inseparable from history and the broader culture of the nation -- is Putting Up With It. The land is so harsh and the winter so extreme that mere survival is the best one can hope for. The survivor, the true Canadian, can have no victory except to escape with his life, just as in that great, uniquely Canadian novel Moby-Dick: "And I alone am escaped to tell thee."

Hunting is American; to die at the wrong end of the rifle is the true Canadian way, because the hunter comes off as the winner, and Canadians are not allowed to win. And so, while American animal stories are hunting stories, Canadian animal stories must sympathize with the hunted animal. Survival cites Dave Godfrey's short-story collection Death Goes Better with Coca-Cola and the crude stereotypes of hunters painted in Graeme Gibson's Five Legs as examples of true Canadian attitudes. In Survival's selective view, the animal stories of Ernest Thompson Seton are canonical, but Roderick Haig-Brown, one of North America's most notable writers on conservation, is not even mentioned -- although he, too, wrote animal stories, such as Silver, Return to the River, and Panther. His failure to cleave to the Animal Victim orthodoxy seems to have excluded him from Survival's Canadian canon.

Defining what is Canadian and what is un-Canadian has become a default rhetorical strategy of Canadian politics. In Ottawa, "American-style" is regularly trotted out as a general-purpose pejorative. It cropped up in June 2013, when Green Party leader Elizabeth May said that Prime Minister Stephen Harper "isn't really Canadian." It is prominent, 40 years after Survival, in Noah Richler's polemical What We Talk About When We Talk About War. A more careful investigation of the national beaver pond might well declare that the unifying thread in Lament for a Nation, Death Goes Better with Coca-Cola, Five Legs, and the rest is not "Survival, la Survivance" but anti-Americanism, l'anti-americanisme, one of the few traits in the national character that genuinely bridges our two solitudes.

So guns and the gun culture were un-Canadian: American ills against which Canada would need to immunize itself. The Liberal Party under Pearson had brought Canada a new flag, and Pierre Trudeau was an energetic nationalist. Gun control was a natural position for his government. In 1969, Liberal MP John Turner, then minister of justice, took the first hesitant steps with a law that -- surprise! -- strove to keep guns away from criminals and the mentally ill while leaving hunters and sports shooters alone. Turner faced little opposition. In some ways, gun control in Canada actually remained looser than in the United States -- as the Globe and Mail pointed out in an editorial, Canadians faced more restrictions when buying a bottle of wine than when buying a gun. Sawed-off shotguns and machine guns remained restricted, rather than prohibited. But the three classes of firearms created by Turner's bill -- unrestricted, restricted, and prohibited -- would form the basis of future Canadian gun control. Although only one model of gun had been prohibited by 1975, the list would expand by the end of the century to include sawed-off shotguns, machine guns, compact handguns, and many specific firearms, including one design -- the advanced Heckler & Koch G11 rifle -- that was prohibited even though it was never actually manufactured.

In 1975, a rash of school shootings shocked Canadians and gave greater impetus to the gun control movement. The guns used in those shootings were rifles and shotguns, one of them a .22 rimfire rifle, the kind of rifle that had long been considered almost harmless. A boy's first .22 rifle, like his first driver's licence and his first pimples, was traditionally seen as a hallmark of adolescence. I first fired a .22 as a Boy Scout. Just as America had initially concerned itself only with "gangster weapons," Canadian gun control had long concerned itself only with handguns. Now suddenly, all guns were potentially dangerous weapons.

In 1976, the Liberals proposed a full licensing system. Your licence application, like your passport application, would need to be countersigned by two guarantors, and Ottawa reserved the right to refuse anyone whom it deemed unsuitable. The Liberals enjoyed a comfortable majority, public support for gun control was running high, and Canada had no gun lobby to speak of. They expected their bill to sail through Parliament. They ought to have known better. South of the border, resistance to gun control had steadily hardened as the focus shifted from gangster weapons to the same guns that everyone owned, and the Liberals were now proposing that everyone who owned a gun would have to apply for a licence to keep it -- an application the government might choose to refuse.

And just like that, Pierre Trudeau inadvertently midwived Canada's gun lobby. Before 1976, Canada had none. The Dominion of Canada Rifle Association, unlike the NRA, had stuck firmly to its mandate of promoting competitive rifle shooting and largely confined itself to organizing matches. It ignored handguns, because handgun shooters had clubs of their own. Canada also had a hunter's lobby, the Canadian Wildlife Federation (CWF), which represented provincial organizations such as the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters and the Alberta Fish and Game Association, but these organizations were mostly concerned with wildlife conservation. There were associations of gun collectors, and of course the First Nation peoples, for whom firearms remained a matter of putting food on the table. But there was no single gun lobby, because there had been no reason for one to exist.

Forging a gun lobby out of these diverse interests would not be easy. Hunters were numerous, but a hunter might well ask, "Well, why not regulate handguns?" First Nations groups would likely share that view, but hunters and First Nations had long been at odds over hunting rights and regulations and were scarcely eager to cooperate. Handgunners distrusted hunters: all those hunters were fellow gun owners, yet they didn't seem to get it, that gun owners needed to stand together. What would they do, down the road, when the government decided to take away their rifles, and no one remained to stand with them? Most isolated of all were the collectors, whose collections might well include war relics such as machine guns. They felt, justifiably, that nobody else could be relied on to stand up for them.

Gun control doesn't much matter, until they come after your gun. Faced with universal licensing, Canada's gun owners struggled to unify. But the vanguard of unity is always the guy who feels most threatened, the guy with the most radical views, who struggles to attract moderate followers. In Alberta, a group called FARO (Firearms and Responsible Ownership) arose to represent a united front for all gun owners, but it attracted only 20,000 members out of perhaps five million gun owners. Later, the CWF, the Shooting Federation of Canada, and FARO banded together to form the Canadian Association for Sensible Arms Legislation (CASAL). Canadian gun owners finally had a truly united national lobby, an equivalent to the NRA. It helped that CASAL's spokesman, Leonard Nicholson, was an RCMP officer: if you want people to think you're responsible, law-abiding people, line up behind a cop.

CASAL got busy, telling its members to get actively involved in politics. Don't stop at contacting your member of parliament. Join a political party -- your choice, buddy, the more the merrier -- and get active in your local riding association. Make your views known and let the bastards know that they can forget about winning if they back this bill; even the privilege of running in the next election might just depend on the support of gun owners. We're not giving up and we're not going away.

But CASAL was born with radical DNA, and fringe rumblings hinted at troubles to come. Handgunners tried to convince hunters that licensing was the cusp of a slippery slope. Hardliners warned that only their guns stood between Canada and despotism. Hitler, whose eternal punishments include being continually resurrected in the arguments of idiots, made a routine cameo appearance. Gun control was a Communist plot. One group, RAGO (Responsible Alberta Gun Owners) even warned Canadian hunters that they were facing their "last enjoyable hunting season," in the great tradition of catastrophizing political debate: when gun control came in, it would all be over.

The Liberals, taken aback by the vehement response to the bill and facing disappointing polls, allowed it to die quietly on the order paper before coming back with a more moderate proposal. Anyone wishing to buy a gun would henceforth require not a licence but a Firearms Acquisition Certificate (FAC), which would be much easier to get. If you already had a gun, you didn't need to do anything. But then they issued an Order in Council that reclassified the AR-15 rifle, the semi-automatic civilian variant of the M16, as a prohibited firearm. Moderates were happy, and saw a victory; hardliners were alarmed by what had happened to the AR-15. CASAL's fragile alliance came under increasing strain.

Behind closed doors, CASAL hammered out a compromise. But in June 1977, in front of the Parliamentary Justice and Legal Affairs Committee, their spokesman Michael Martinoff went on a rant, decrying the reclassification of the AR-15 and declaring his intent to disobey the law. The committee used him as a verbal punching bag. CASAL's credibility was ruined, and the CWF -- representing the moderate mass of its support -- promptly distanced itself from the hardliners. Canada's nascent gun lobby had collapsed. But for any gun control activist to celebrate its demise would be premature: it fell apart only because, for most Canadian gun owners, the threat had disappeared when Liberal licensing proposals died on the order paper. Twenty years later, when the government again proposed sweeping gun controls, the lobby would return, stronger and more militant than ever.

A.J. Somerset has been a soldier, a technical writer, a programmer, and a freelance photographer. His non-fiction has appeared in numerous outdoor magazines in Canada and the United States, and his articles have been translated into French and Japanese.

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