Disarming Canadians

Over a century and a half, Canada has gone from basically no gun control to some of the toughest restrictions on guns in the Western world. How and why did this happen? In Arming and Disarming: A History of Gun Control in Canada, Canadian historian R. Blake Brown of St. Mary’s University (Nova Scotia) tries to answer this question.

Before Confederation, which created Canada as we know it in 1867, gun control did not exist, except in rare periods of emergency. This was as true under the French Regime on which, unfortunately, Brown has little to say. But he documents well how private guns remained free after the 1760 British conquest. Only during the four years of military rule (1760-1764) were French colonists (ancestors of the French Canadians) deprived of their arms.

By the mid-19th century, writes Brown, firearms had become less widespread, because of the end of Indian threats, the end of duelling, and the rise of professional policing. Limited gun control laws focused on public safety in a narrow sense (not discharging weapons in cities, for example), and on temporary emergencies where special groups were targeted such as rioting laborers or 1837-1838 rebels. It was generally admitted that the English Bill or Rights of 1689 forbade the government from disarming British subjects (which French Canadians had become with the Conquest). Citizens were encouraged to train with guns to “allow British North Americans to defend themselves against an American attack” (p. 41), Brown notes.

After 1867, the new federal government continued to encourage possession of rifles and training with them. The government subsidized the Dominion of Canada Rifle Association, founded in 1868, and other such associations. Brown claims that Canadian riflemen even helped create the US National Rifle Association. The idea that loyal citizens needed to own guns and be trained in their usage in order to defend Canada and the Empire persisted until World War I. A strong gun culture developed.

But something had changed with the creation of the new country’s central government. Perhaps Brown could have more clearly identified this watershed. The federal government confirmed the ban on private militias. It created the North-West Mounted Police (the ancestor of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police), and tried to disarm the Indians (who were not considered full British subjects). Although there is no indication of a crime problem except for a few riots, many started to fear the development of “a gun culture similar to that of the United States.” (p. 68) But calls for gun control were met by much opposition. In 1872, Conservative Prime Minister John Macdonald defended “the principle laid down in Blackstone of the right of parties to carry weapons in self-defence.” (p. 70) Yet, a few years later, a new government banned the carrying of pistols without reasonable cause. And in 1892, the first Criminal Code required a “certificate of exemption,” for anybody wishing to carry a pistol.

The federal government continued to encourage shooting and hunting with long guns, and “fully supported the arming of trustworthy citizens” as part of “a groundswell of support for the British Empire in English Canada.” (p. 81) There was even a federal “minister of the militia.” French Canadians were probably not as favorable toward the Empire, but a gun culture also developed in Québec. Illustrating the forever ambivalent attitude of Canadians towards Americans, Annie Oakley became popular among Canadian women interested in rifle shooting.

Amendments to the Criminal Code in 1913 further restricted the right to carry a pistol. To grant a permit, the police had to be persuaded of the “discretion and good character” (p. 130) of the applicant. “Because legislators focused on the use of arms by minority groups,” Brown observes, “few Canadians offered much resistance to stronger gun controls,” and the right of Englishmen to arms was seldom cited after 1900.

World War I gave a big impulse to the Canadian Leviathan. Some 80,000 “enemy aliens” living in Canada were forced to register their guns, and many were disarmed. “For instance,” Brown tells us, “the [North-West Mounted Police] took a Mauser rifle and shotgun from Frank Hagn, an enemy alien with one eye, a deformed shoulder, a pregnant wife, and eleven children.” (p. 134) In 1920, under the excuse of the Bolshevik danger, the government required a permit for virtually all guns, but the requirement was abolished one year later.

Between the two world wars, Leviathan continued to advance stealthily. Brown explains that “[l]aw enforcement . . . cemented their right to pistols at the same time that the state would tighten regulations of privately owned handguns.” (p. 144) A Member of Parliament warned in 1930 that “in the republic of the south of us, the revolver is master,” and “the situation is hopeless” (p. 141). In the 1930s, a wind of statism blew over the Western world – even if Brown doesn’t frame the problem this way. He does note, however, the adoption in the US of the National Firearms Act of 1934 and the Federal Firearms Act of 1938. The Conservative Prime Minister of Canada, R.B. Bennett, thought that “something must be done” about the pistol problem, even if the nature of the problem remained elusive. His government adopted two pieces of gun control legislation, in 1933 and 1934. The second of these laws has led to the requirement that all handguns must be registered with the police.

During World War II, aliens living in Canada were again disarmed, but they got their guns back after the war. In 1940, the handgun registry was temporarily extended to rifles and shotguns, but this part of the registry was destroyed after the war. Many servicemen returning to Canada brought guns with them, which raised concerns. The men who risked their lives for the state were not deemed very trustworthy. It now seemed that everybody, not only aliens, the Irish or disloyal subjects, was suspicious.

New gun controls came to Canada in the 1960s and especially the 1970s –coterminous with restrictions also being imposed by the British and the US federal governments. Justified by rising crime rates (as was happening everywhere in the Western world), school murders in Ontario, and political trouble with Québec separatists, the 1977 law required a permit to purchase any firearm including long guns. It was a compromise between the much tougher intentions of the Liberal government and a loud public outcry. “You could have a revolution,” had shouted an unidentified Member of Parliament a few years earlier (p. 165).

In retrospect, the 1977 gun controls look innocuous. Easy to obtain, the gun acquisition permit was not required if one just wanted to keep the guns one already owned. But the process of actively disarming Canadians, after the government had actively worked to arm them, was picking up speed. And the revolution never came.

One of the main threads that run through Brown’s book is the growing power of the state which made possible social controls that had previously been unthinkable. Canadians (especially perhaps French Canadians) had often shown their spirit of disobedience, including towards firearm controls. For a long period in Canadian history, the state simply did not have the power to enforce wide-ranging gun controls; consequently, it did not enact them. The new state created in 1867 developed its powers until it made disobedience very costly, making tight gun controls enforceable.

Until World War II, controls on long guns had been used sparingly and temporarily against specific groups like non-British immigrants or low-class, troublesome people. The 1977 law showed that Leviathan was getting sure of himself. And as Brown writes, “political leaders and bureaucrats in the 1990s believed that the state finally possessed sufficient power to impose such a program [of disarming Canadians].” (p. 200) All along, the police establishment had called for more gun controls.

Arming and Disarming shows all that very well. The final chapter of the book, “Flexing the Liberal State’s Muscles,” depicts the latest act (up to 2006) in the tragedy of Canadian gun control. In some ways, this chapter is puzzling.

The big opportunity for the Canadian Leviathan came in the 1980s with a few spectacular mass killings, political trouble from the Mohawks, and the rise of a bleeding-heart women’s movement against guns (and against other despised lifestyles). The 1991 gun-control law, adopted by a Conservative government, tightened the existing permit to acquire guns and made it much more invasive of privacy. The capacity of magazines was limited. The law clearly aimed at undermining self-defense, if only because all guns would now have to be “safely stored” without ammunition immediately available.

But the worst was still to come with the extensive gun-control legislation of 1995. Here is what the Canadian government really did, and what Brown seems to have missed, at least partly, like most observers.

Bill C-68, adopted by the federal Parliament in 1995, did two things: it created the Firearms Act, meant to control guns and gun owners; and it amended the Criminal Code to make crimes (liable to up to 10 years in jail) out of violations of the Firearms Act’s bureaucratic requirements. Taken as a whole, this complex legislation created two different sets of legal obligations: first, the registration of all guns; second, the requirement that anybody, in order to have the privilege of registering and keeping his guns, obtain a personal license, renewable every five years, revocable, and intrusive. Thus, two related but different registries were created: a gun registry and a people registry. Gun owners who don’t maintain a license get their guns confiscated. Even gun owners had problems understanding the double-headed monster. And the government propaganda actively maintained the confusion by stressing the gun registry and playing down the gun owner registry.

The 1995 legislation represented, even more than Blake Brown realizes, “the increased confidence of the state to impose its will on citizens.” (p. 234) Soon afterwards, the courts affirmed that owning a firearm in Canada is a privilege, not a right.

Brown argues that Canadian gun owners had changed. They did not belong as much to the middle classes and high strata of society anymore, but mainly to the working classes, which made them more vulnerable. Brown should have emphasized that those who tried to resist this attack on their rights and their lifestyles were weakly organized, had little money, enjoyed little support in the intellectual community, and were generally disconnected from the ways of the world. They were steamrolled by the state. Libertarian voices were drowned – and are also largely ignored by Brown.

Although the coverage of Arming and Disarming formally stops in 2006, with the election of a Conservative government, the book’s conclusion suggests that the abolition of the long-gun registry by this government in 2011 was a momentous event. It was not. The whole licensing system, the Trojan Horse of the 1995 law, remains in force, and the government declared that it is committed to it, contrary to what the Conservative Party and the preceding Reform Party had promised. The confusion between the “gun registry” and licensing (the people registry) made the fraud easy to pull. Historians are better at reporting the past than at understanding the present.

It is often said, not inaccurately, that Canadians are just Americans with public health insurance and without guns. Jean Chrétien, who was Prime Minister when the 1995 law was adopted, wrote that gun control is a “core value” that helps “define the difference between Canadians and Americans.” (p. 3). America pops up everywhere in Arming and Disarming, from the perceived need of 19th-century British authorities for an armed populace against possible America attacks, to the fear of the American gun culture.

Brown’s book is in many ways a brilliant book which fills a gasping gap in Canadian history. We can hope that another book will fill the remaining gaps in the past two decades and document the continuing resistance to the liberticidal gun control laws in Canada.