Sadly, we are once again confronted with the horror of a school shooting. This one is particularly painful for me as I have two small children, one of whom is the age of those slaughtered in Connecticut. Inevitably, talk of gun control in America begins anew. I know the issue is different in the US than most other countries because gun rights are constitutionally-protected. Here in Canada and in most other western countries, gun control is a political issue. Governments establish gun laws according to the whims of the electorate with little concern for possible legal challenges. For this reason, it is difficult for Americans to draw much insight from the gun control laws in other countries. Still, for what it's worth, I offer my thoughts as someone who has recently begun the process of exercising my legal gun ownership priviledges in Canada.
Americans would probably find some things about Canada's gun control laws surprising. Gun rights advocates in the US often exaggerate the severity of Canada's gun laws. We have three categories of firearms, non-restricted, restricted and prohibited. Non-restricted firearms include most rifles and shotguns, including semi-automatic rifles. To own a non-restricted firearm, you must get a non-restricted Possession and Acquisition License (PAL). To do this, you must be 18 years of age or older, take a certified firearm safety course and pass both a written and practical exam, provide two references as well as your spouse or conjugal partner, provide contact information for any previous conjugal partners within the last two years and reveal any criminal offences or diagnoses of mental illnesses. You then submit this information to the RCMP so that background checks may be performed. If you pass the background checks, then and only then may you purchase your firearm or ammunition. Restricted firearms include most handguns as well as certain short-barrelled long guns and any rifles with telescoping or folding stocks like the AR-15 used in the recent school shooting. The process for getting a restricted PAL is similar although an additional exam is required. The major difference is that every restricted firearm must be registered. Some of you Americans may, at this point, notice that despite what you may have heard, handguns are not illegal in Canada. I must confess, even I was a bit surprised by how easy it is to legally acquire a handgun in Canada and I live here. Still, most Canadians don't own handguns. It is, I think, a bit of a cultural thing. Handguns are associated with police or criminals. So, if you're not a cop, Canadians tend to wonder why you would want a handgun. The third category is prohibited and it includes all firearms not covered in the previous categories. This includes certain types of small, concealable handguns, "sawed-off" shotguns and rifles and, of course, automatic weapons. Despite the terminology, it is possible to own some of these weapons, although the criteria for qualification is so extreme, it is virtually impossible for private citizens to own such guns, unless you own a firing range. One important caveat should be noted at this time. As I mentioned, military-style, semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 are legal in Canada, but the large-capacity magazines like those used in the Connecticut school shooting are not. Semi-autos in Canada are limited to 5-rd. magazines regardless of the type of magazine they employ. If a particular rifle doesn't have the option of a 5-rd. magazine, a larger capacity mag may be modified by a gunsmith to limit it to five rounds. This regulation will not, of course, stop a mass shooting, but it can reduce the death toll.
In researching for my gun license application, I was surprised to notice how rates of firearm ownership vary from country to country. The US is, of course, far ahead of the rest of the developed world with around 90 firearms for every 100 citizens. After that, the frequently-cited Switzerland and Finland come in at around 45 guns per 100 citizens. Canada, along with France, Germany, Austria and most of the Nordic countries have around 30 guns per 100 citizens and the UK, which has some of the strictest gun laws in the free world, has around six guns per 100 citizens. Given its draconian gun control laws and stifling level of domestic surveillance, I fear the UK is, for all intents and purposes, a benign police state.
I don't really know how Americans will square the circle on gun control. Any measures, even if broadly-supported by the electorate, will be subject to legal challenge on constitutional grounds. Throw states rights and partisan gridlock into the equation and you have a real mountain to climb. I'm not at all confident President Obama is the man to climb it. It may be that only a Republican president could manage it, like only Nixon could go to China. Still, I hope for the best. Atrocities like those we witnessed this past week in Connecticut erode the soul of a nation. They make us fearful and paranoid. They chip away at the foundations of civilization. They must be stopped.