Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in 2008

Last year’s North American political news cycle began horribly and tragically on this day with the attempted assassination of Arizona Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the murder of six people who had the misfortune to be standing near her when the bullets started flying. One of them was a nine-year-old girl. Another 13 people were injured in the incident.

It’s hard to say whether the Canadian gun lobby or the Conservative politicians in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government who have worked so closely with it to eliminate the Canadian long-gun registry would consider Jared Lee Loughner, the mentally ill man who pulled the trigger in Tuscon that day, “a law-abiding gun owner.”

Judging from Loughner’s Wikipedia biography, he had had only ever been charged with possessing drug paraphernalia and defacing a stop sign. The purchase of the nine-mm Glock automatic pistol he used in the shootings seems to have been completely legal under Arizona law.

Regardless, we would all presumably agree that even if Loughner was a law-abiding gun owner up until Jan. 8, 2011, he ceased to be one the moment he started pulling the trigger that morning.

Which is precisely the problem, it is respectfully submitted, with the argument frequently touted during the Canadian debate over the national rifle and shotgun registry that “law-abiding gun owners” should not be “treated like criminals” by being subjected to regulation of their interest or registration of their weapons.

Loughner was known to hold extreme negative views on such topics as the right of women to have an abortion or to hold public office, as well believing that the U.S. government was practicing mind control, faking spaceflights, and had backed the 9-11 attacks. But such beliefs, while they are associated with the Tea Party right, are of necessity completely legal in a democracy.

Given the shooter’s association with the right, a short-lived debate took place in the United States about whether the increasingly violent rhetoric of American rightists might contribute to an increase in political violence in that country. The fact that Sarah Palin, then still considered by many to be a likely Republican presidential candidate, had published her infamous “target map” of politicians disliked by the far right, including Giffords, added fuel to the fire.

Having written several critical posts on this blog about the Harper Conservatives’ decision to push the elimination of the national rifle and shotgun registry, it has been interesting to observe the how crude rhetoric of the American gun lobby has found its way into our Canadian debates about Harper’s adoption of National-Rifle-Association-approved policies.

Several trends stand out in the well-organized reaction to my posts:

  1. The abusive and threatening tone of many individuals in the Canadian pro-gun lobby
  2. The determination that gun owners will never again “submit” to registration laws
  3. An attempt to define reasonable restrictions on gun ownership as a form of “bigotry”
  4. A risible effort to define opposition to wide-open gun ownership as a psychiatric condition comparable to paranoia or some other diagnosable form of mental illness
  5. The apparently sincere belief that since the speaker is a law-abiding gun owner, guns aren’t a problem
  6. The determination of the gun lobby, as predicted in this space, to go after Canada’s restrictions on hand guns next

Anyone who makes a public statement in favour of sensible gun laws can expect this kind of reaction, of course. I doubt these messages have much impact on the attitudes of most real voters, but I believe they illustrate the true attitudes of the entity with which the Harper Conservatives have sat down to sup, and without the long spoon usually advised for such culinary experiences.

This, in turn, should raise the same concern as in the United States after the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Giffords and the mass slaying that accompanied it. If threatening, abusive behaviour is considered reasonable political discourse by the armed right, especially in defence of wide-open firearms ownership, can actual violence be far behind?

Now, in fairness, not all responses by people who disagreed with my posts were abusive. Some — in the form of Tweets and comments — differed respectfully. Occasionally there was even a glimmer of humour, like the fellow who acknowledged my black-belt rank in karate and argued for a national registry of martial artists’ hands and feet.

Interesting, too, that a blog with at most a few thousand readers engendered such an energetic response from gun enthusiasts. Indeed, if this keeps up, I may have to consider running ads for gun shops in order to retire profitably and early!

Much more typical, though, was the tone were the following Tweets:

– “You can have them all, right after every last one is red hot and empty, you fascist prick.”

– “If you want my guns so badly, then get off ur fat ass & PERSONALLY kick my door in and take them. #fuckingloudmouthcoward…”

– “We’re here. We’re armed. Get used to it.”

Indeed, the come-and-get-them-yourself theme was a prominent one, although one shrewd fellow noted that would-be “gun-grabbers” (quite frequently identified as “libtards”) are such cowardly worms that they would prefer to send armed and uniformed police to do their dirty work. This, note, is typically in response to a call for registration of firearms. (See conspiracy theories above.)

Another popular theme in this discourse is the belief that some future government of New Democrats and/or Liberals would come to seize all the guns, which it is usually explained are needed to resist just such governments. Again, we need to ask, are such fantasies being encouraged by the Harper Conservatives, and if so are they in fact increasing the chances of actual future gun violence for political reasons?

This frequently segues into another theme popular with the gun-obsessed right: Never again, and we’ve got the guns to make sure.

– “We won’t bow again, ever.”

– “There won’t be a next time sunshine. Never again will law-abiding gun owners be duped into registering long guns.”

At that point, presumably, they won’t be law-abiding gun owners any more either, although this thought seems not to have occurred to the people who favour this line.

Meanwhile, the bigotry theme typically takes the form of whining about people who see the need for sensible controls on weapons as being bigoted against firearms enthusiasts, as if we were all born with a Walther PPK grafted to one hand:

– “#gunregistry is hate speech dressed as law.”

– “Let the fantasy of #gunregistry hate machine go. It’s gone anyhow.”

This in turn gives way to the gun-right’s most creative argument, that people who are “unreasonably fearful” of firearms are, in fact, crazy. They’ve even cooked up a name for this condition, hoplophobia. Thus:

– “A visit with mental health may help with your hoplophobia.”

– “The mentally ill gun-grabbers like DJ will never be reasonable. They’re lost.”

Amidst this loony-tunes cacophony, one can almost feel a little sympathy with those hobbyists who plaintively seek justification in their own essentially law-abiding nature, and those of their sons, daughters and spouses with whom they enjoy potting away at things, animate or not:

– “Protect society from whom? I have been a competitive shooter for 40 years and never harmed a soul. How am I a threat?”

– “Despite the fact that I have fired several hundred thousand rounds in my many guns, not a single person has been harmed. … No one is harmed by the typical gun owner.”

Finally, in response to my post suggesting the Harper Conservatives will not be able to resist using this wedge again, was the triumphalist crowing of those who intend to encourage just that:

– “Since it’s just as useless, the handgun registry should be next to go. Actually, the entire firearms act should be scrapped.”

– “I assure you, this is just the beginning. Next will be decriminalization of simple posession (sic) of a firearm. Then the lame OICs will be rescinded. ATTs demolished. SAPs for grandfathered prohib owners will be issued, so they can actually take their guns to the range. Magazine limits will be scrapped. This is truly just the beginning. We make elections, we break elections…”

– “Every Canadian needs the right to bear arms.”

This is the can of worms that Harper and his so-called Conservatives have opened.

Clearly, from the tone of these comments, it is fair to conclude that in addition to sincere and safety-minded hobbyists, many deeply troubled Canadians demand the right to own and use firearms and have been emboldened and encouraged by this government for short-term political gain.

We cannot assume that we not see “political” gun violence in Canada like that which happened a year ago in Arizona simply because Canadian gun owners are, as a group, more sane or more law-abiding than their U.S. counterparts.

However, if we do experience this kind of violence, we can count on our domestic “law-abiding gun owners” to deny all responsibility, and the Harper government to call for more prisons and more punishment after the preventable fact.

I am not ready to despair yet, not ready to embrace firearms as a reasonable response to the troubling mix of right-wing politics and guns, but it will be hard to put this Harperite genie back in the bottle, at least without more exemplary blood being needlessly shed.

What a pathetic state of affairs, brought to us by a deeply cynical and incompetent governing party.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...