The growing power of the Canadian gun lobby

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"Your shopping cart is currently empty."

This little notice popped onto my screen as I browsed the website of one of Canada's biggest gun retailers, surveying the wide assortment of assault weapons it offers for sale online -- including one virtually identical to the semi-automatic rifle used in last week's horrific school slaughter in Connecticut.

Canadians often take comfort in the notion that spectacles of gruesome gun violence are part of a U.S. pathology that has prevented Americans from putting in place sensible laws to limit the availability of personalized weapons for mass destruction.

But the website of Manitoba-based Wolverine Supplies quickly corrects that misimpression, as it prompts me to load up my online shopping cart with a collection of "combat-proven" assault rifles.

The Wolverine site has all the consumer breeziness of online bookseller, making it easy to forget you're not dealing with books but rather high-powered weapons which have little use unless you're planning to wipe out a SWAT team.

The Wolverine website features a section called "packing in pink," with a drawing of a sultry, bare-midriffed young woman sporting a handgun, amid an array of pink accessories.

Certainly the website promotes the fun of guns: "Now that you've got your new firearm you've been waiting for, you just want to go out and shoot it!" The website advises you to read the instruction manual first.

Shopping on the website, it's easy to forget that assault weapons, which allow the shooter to fire at every squeeze of the trigger, are machines designed explicitly to kill humans in warfare. They are not suitable for hunting, unless the intention is to pump bullets into a forest in the hope that a deer nestled among the trees might be caught napping. Quite the sport.

The website also features night vision scopes and dummy suppressors (often converted into silencers). Peace researcher Peter Langille notes these accessories are not used in hunting or target practice, but are helpful for killing people quietly after dark from a distance.

All this suggests that the intense Canadian political focus on the federal gun registry may have ultimately been a distraction from an even bigger gun issue -- the ready availability of combat weapons in Canada.

I happened to see a large selection of them on display under a glass counter at a sports and hunting store last summer in rural Nova Scotia. That store wasn't even on the list of Wolverine's 42 affiliated retail outlets across Canada.

This indicates that Canadian gun control laws are considerably weaker than most of us have been lulled into believing.

Canadian purchasers of assault weapons and handguns are required to take a 10-hour course which, according to an Ontario government website, "will allow students the opportunity to extensively handle and load the three major restricted action types."

The course also teaches students about "social and ethical responsibilities." That's all very nice but it's hard to imagine that "ethical responsibilities" are top of mind for someone intent on opening fire at a local school.

Canadian purchasers also must obtain a gun licence that screens for violent history. Obviously this can't weed out those with apparently normal backgrounds, as is often the case with first-time mass murderers.

We tend to think of the hopelessness of the U.S. situation, where the gun lobby wields such extraordinary power. But this airbrushes the growing power of the Canadian gun lobby, which consists of gun manufacturers and retailers, individual hunters and collectors as well as the lobby's political arm, the Harper government.

The lobby showed the extent of its political muscle in killing something as sensible as the gun registry -- not just preventing a registry from being established but actually dismantling one that Canadians had paid close to a billion dollars to create.

That same lobby is now insisting that it's heartless to talk about gun control at a time when we should be mourning and hugging our kids.

Accordingly, most of us will confine ourselves to grieving the senseless school slaughter, while others -- right here in Canada -- will be loading assault weapons into their shopping carts.

Linda McQuaig is author of It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet and The Trouble With Billionaires. This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: elycefeliz/Flickr

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