Bullets and Borders

by Mike O’Brien

Living next to the United States, Canadians can develop a warped sense of normality. It is similar to living with an alcoholic; sure, you may drink a bit much from time to time, but compared to their whirlwind of self-intoxication, is it really so bad? Of course, your liver function isn’t graded on a curve, so such comparisons can dangerously trivialise the harms of objectively excessive and destructive behaviour.

This warping of perspective is obvious when comparing Canada’s laws to those of the USA, on one hand, and the EU, on the other. (Confusingly, French Canadians refer to the United States by the initials “É.-U.”, for “États-Unis”. Why must they be so difficult?) Our labour laws sometimes hew closer to the stingy, even brutal, labour regime of our southern neighbour, where legally protected paid sick leave or parental leave is viewed as some kind of Communist science fiction. Compared to the more robust worker protections of many European countries, Canada’s weaker rules seem deficient and outdated. But compared to the cruel feudal hellscape of the USA, it’s practically a worker’s paradise.

This is but one example of our (federal, provincial and municipal) governments’ laxity in pursuing their mandate to uphold peace, order and good government against the constant, avaricious wheedling of capital interests. It doesn’t help that the vast ecosystem of improper moneyed influence down south is able to cross our borders seamlessly, offering strategic advice and resources to Canada’s own environmental ruiners in the energy, mineral and agribusiness sectors. With barely a 10th of the USA’s population, and much less of its economic and cultural might, our sovereignty over our own material affairs is tenuous, especially when it conflicts with Uncle Sam’s desire for “security”, be that in the form of abundant energy supplies or a socialism-free continent.

We can’t blame the Americans for everything, whatever the emotional benefits of such deflection. We are quite capable of fouling our own nest. Take, for instance, the Horne metal smelter in the Quebec community of Rouyn-Noranda. In operation since 1927, and currently under the ownership of the Swiss multinational Glencore, this facility sits in the middle of a community numbering some 40 000 people. It regularly emits levels of lead, cadmium, arsenic and nickel far in excess of Quebec’s own established limits. In fact, a recent story in Montreal’s La Presse showed that these limits are exceeded by a factor of three to five on an averaged annual basis, and by a factor of tens or hundreds on particular days. It is able to do so because Quebec’s environment ministry keeps granting the foundry temporary waivers. Last year, it was revealed that Quebec’s former public health czar, Horacio Arruda, withheld from publication sections of a report showing health impacts on the community. The data, finally revealed two and half year later, showed rates of COPD in young people 50% higher than the Quebec average, and rates of lung cancer 15% higher. These figures likely under-represent the health impact of the foundry, since much of the damage of metal exposure is neurological and developmental. Spurred by media attention and public outrage, the Quebec government now promises that it will only permit Glencore to poison the residents of Rouyn-Noranda for another five years before it… um… does something?

I say all this to vent, to excoriate, and to segue from one lead-based public health problem to another. Among Canada’s favourite pass-times, gloating about our more reasonable gun laws ranks somewhere between curling and watching re-runs of The Red Green Show. As with restrictions on food additives, vehicle emissions and pharmaceutical usury, our rules about firearms compare favourably to America’s raging dumpster fire of terrible/insane ideas, but still seem a bit hairy and cavalier compared to the better angels of Europe. Canadians still need to go through a rigorous screening process to get a licence to acquire and possess firearms. Canadian gun owners are subject to strict rules about how guns are stored, transported and used, and the selection of firearms available to them is much restricted. For instance, most semi-automatic rifles are limited to a magazine capacity of five, and pistols (themselves harder to acquire, as they require a special licence) are limited to ten, as well as being subject to criteria favouring sport shooting over concealment. Mass shootings still occur, often with guns that have been illegally obtained or modified, but with far less frequency than in the murder-sick States.

It takes very little imagination to guess whence the majority of illegal guns come to Canada. Living next to the world’s largest supply of untracked, virtually unregulated private guns creates a problem that only Americans can fix, and it seems that a governing plurality of them have no interest in controlling guns, nor any care for their victims.

It’s not just the guns and ammunition that seep over our border, but ideology as well. This mental contagion was evident during the fever of anti-vaccine protests last year (Or were they anti-mask? Or anti-Trudeau? Or anti-democratic-legitimacy? It is very hard to pin down the intentions of the most stupid and irascible 15% of a country). Born-and-raised Canadian goons deplored the violation of their “First Amendment rights” and waved American (and vintage German) flags while baying for a form of “Freedom” that has never held sway in this Loyalist oasis of good sense. No doubt some of them will try to “plead the Fifth” and complain of not being Mirandized when brought before a magistrate to answer for their behaviour. This is equal parts bemusing and alarming, but not at all surprising when one considers that nearly all Canadian newspapers are owned by a right-leaning American hedge fund, and that the social media consumed by Canadians is overwhelmingly produced by Americans and pushed by American platforms, using algorithms trained on American users.

Still, the differences between our two countries on the matter of gun control remain expansive and sturdy, perhaps ever more so as most American states descend into a gun-mad dementia of ever looser regulations. Canadians look on in horrified amazement as roughly half of the States adopt “Constitutional Carry” laws, whereby nearly any adult may carry a concealed gun without obtaining a permit to do so. Add to this those jurisdictions with “shall issue” rules for concealed gun permits (whereby applicants are entitled to receive a concealed carry permit, unless the state can find a disqualifying reason within a few days of the application), and most Americans find themselves in places where virtually anyone could be packing heat, all within the good graces of the law. Rules on the open carrying of guns are generally even more permissive.

Against such a comparator (comparatrix? It is America the Beautiful, and not America the Handsome, after all), it is not difficult to appear as the more reasonable country. But we still try to fine tune our firearms regulations, especially as gun crime gains more attention due to rising gang violence around Canada’s cities. The memory of infamous mass shootings looms over this discussion, and there has been a tendency in the past to focus legislation on a particular model or type of gun used in the most recent outrage, rather than a more comprehensive approach based on functional characteristics. Still, a combination of permits, handgun restrictions, ongoing background checks, and magazine limits has been quite successful in minimising the incidence of crimes committed with legal firearms, despite frequent failures.

The federal government’s most recent attempts to further tighten the net around Canada’s guns roused opposition from the usual quarters. We have a firearms owners’ lobby here, though it is nothing like the grotesque and overly influential NRA, and our increasingly Republican-aping Conservative party is quite happy to amplify and channel rural outrage at the rights-stealing schemes of urban elites. The government froze the sale and transfer of handguns last fall, as well as tabling legislation to add many long guns to the list of banned models. This last proposal raised the most fuss, as the list included several items that have become quite popular among Canadian hunters and sport shooters. Two guns in particular caused howls of protest: the Garand, a WWII-era American rifle, and the SKS, a post-WWII Soviet rifle. These guns had become popular for several reasons. As former standard military arms, they are cheap, reliable and plentiful, and their ubiquity means that there exists a large market for compatible accessories. Just as important, they both feature internal magazines rather than the detachable sort which are subject to Canada’s five round limit. With plentiful “clips” which allow the internal magazine to be refilled in one action, these two guns provide more firepower than do more modern designs using restricted-capacity detachable magazines.

Several arguments were made against banning these guns. None of them spoke to the rationale of the government, which was that they are capable of the kind of high-volume fire suited to mowing down crowds and outgunning police. The first argument was that they had become widespread, and the ban would negatively affect too many lawful owners. This is not an argument about rights, but rather about the breadth of inconvenience and the logistics of enforcement. It amounts to saying “we should not do this because it would be difficult”. Which is not completely irrelevant when choosing the laws of a country; law enforcement resources are limited, and cost/benefit considerations are appropriate. There was also a defiant hint of “good luck taking them all” in some of these objections, which has the faintly rebellious whiff of an armed group daring the government to exercise its authority against them, something which this continent has quite enough of lately.

A second argument against banning these guns was that they are improperly lumped in with modern assault weapons, which are far deadlier and more militarily oriented (except when the gun lobby is protesting the banning of these more modern weapons, in which case they will argue that the differences are merely cosmetic). This “harmless antiques” argument is absurd. First, because these guns were designed to be very good at killing people, and beat out several competing designs that were also very good at killing people, and were officially adopted by governments who were dedicated to fielding the very best people-killing technology in the defence of their national interests. To argue that they are somehow made less deadly by the passage of time is to adopt a cartoonish view of history, wherein deaths in past eras were somehow less real. Second, because these older designs are only obsolete relative to more modern arms, a fact which is irrelevant to the unilateral violence of criminal attacks. An outdated racing car can still drive far in excess of safe speed limits, and an outdated infantry rifle can still wreak bloody havoc in a public place.

As in every debate about gun control, many argued that these rifles were not “weapons” but “tools”, presumably because they have “aged out” of their military vocation and are mostly used for hunting and sport shooting (I would argue that the latter activity would make them “toys” rather than tools, albeit deadly ones). This assumes that the categories of “weapons” and “tools” are parallel and exclusive of each other, which is not evident and has never been convincingly argued. (I am reminded of a particularly obtuse American judge who recently compared the AR-15, the parent design of America’s and Canada’s standard military rifles, to the Swiss Army Knife. As a pocket-knife collector, gun understander and erstwhile student of legal philosophy, the sheer bullshittery of this argument seems tailor-made to offend me.) This fallacious weapon/tool disjunction has recently been flipped on its head by American gun rights advocates. They argue that the Second Amendment’s “right to bear arms” (in the context of a well-regulated militia, but apparently that bit isn’t important) explicitly protects weapons, not sporting guns. I actually agree with this interpretation, though I disagree with whole project of maintaining an on-call rebel army, due to my good Canadian breeding. As this constitutional argument is increasingly used to support maximalist gun-rights positions, the “not weapons” defence is becoming less popular (no doubt to the relief of many advocates who knew it was obviously disingenuous). The gun crazies have gained so much ground, they no longer need to lie about their intentions.

This might be salutary for gun control in Canada, given how influential American gun culture is on our own. Americans have gun rights insofar as guns are weapons, whereas Canadians have gun privileges insofar as guns are not weapons. If the “guns are definitely weapons, that’s why they are protected” mantra dominates American gun advocacy, Canadian gun advocates will find themselves cut off from the rhetorical resources of their larger, more gun-loving neighbour. They will have to explain why their American counterparts are mistaken about all guns being weapons to even begin to craft their own position. The less sophisticated and more Facebook-demented among them will probably double down on parroting American revolutionary language, further alienating them from most Canadians, who want nothing to do with vaguely (or not so vaguely) Fascist death cult across their border. (As a Canadian knife collector, I am worried to see the “protected because weapons” argument successfully employed against American knife restrictions. If Canadian legislators are convinced that knives are categorically weapons, I shall have to find some other means of wasting money.)

Besides all these technical and legal quibbles, though, another distinction struck me. The guns used to kill animals in sport are generally not characterised as weapons. They were weapons once, if they are “sporterised” military surplus. Or they may become weapons if they are turned against people, or against a dangerous animal in self-defence. But when employed in their “proper” role of killing animals for food, sport, or economic gain, the “weapon” category tends not to be employed. What are we to make of this? Unlike the human victims of gun violence, with whom we might compare ourselves and fear finding ourselves in the same circumstances, “properly” shot animals are some wholly lesser kind of being, whose killing doesn’t signal any danger to our safety.

How much longer will this dichotomy exist, such that the killing of animals for nothing other than amusement is not only legally and socially permitted, but accepted as sufficient reason for possessing firearms that also endanger human lives? Canadians are increasingly urban (well, suburban, unfortunately), and the interests and traditions of rural communities may soon diminish in political weight to the point where catering to them is no longer a viable electoral strategy. The Canadian government is already not neutral on animal suffering, having criminal laws against animal cruelty and (inadequate, industry-coddling) regulations on the treatment of animals in agriculture. In Quebec, recent legislation categorises some animals (the ones that nobody is profiting from) as sentient beings with vital interests. The gulf between the moral status of human and animal victims is slowly narrowing. Perhaps in a generation, most Canadians will see themselves in solidarity with animal vulnerability; one nation, under the gun. Maybe then the “sporting” uses of guns will be reason to hasten, rather than forestall, the disarming of civil society.

(I should note that the federal government’s proposed changes to Canada’s long gun laws have been withdrawn for further consultation and review, following the political ballyhoo. The odious, dishonest toad at the helm of the official opposition claimed credit for forcing our Prime Minister into this “humiliating climb-down”, which is apparently how our Conservatives characterise the revision of legislation in response to new information.)