After the ad appeared in a local outdoors magazine, the 13-year-old boy from Lethbridge, Alta., sent in $370 by money order.
His purchase arrived on a Monday: a semi-automatic rifle that could fire 10 shots in nine seconds.
The 1976 stunt, which was seemingly orchestrated by a newspaper — young Patrick Harrop was the son of a Lethbridge Herald reporter — helped shine the spotlight on an unfolding public debate.
One columnist wrote at the time, “I don’t believe a weapon like the AR-15 should be allowed to be sold in Alberta — or Canada — to anyone, no matter what their age. … We don’t need AR-15 rifles around any more than we need tanks for the people.”
Half a century later, the debate and central question remains, made poignant once more by fresh tragedy, this week’s a mass shooting at an elementary school in Texas: How difficult should it be to get an assault rifle?
The two rifles used in Uvalde, Texas, were legally purchased by the shooter to celebrate his 18th birthday, CNN reported.
“(He) had no problem accessing those weapons,” State Sen. Ronald Gutierrez told the network.
The controversial AR-15 semi-automatic weapon and its various knock-offs have featured in mass shootings such as Sandy Hook elementary in 2012 and the Highway 91 country music festival in California in 2017.
In the wake of the Nova Scotia mass shooting two years ago, the Canadian government vowed to ban more than 1,500 weapons, including the AR-15.
After the latest shooting in Texas, Trudeau said that yet more gun control measures could be coming within weeks.
But major questions remain about what that might look like. This spring, the two-year amnesty period put in place after the last announcement, designed to give gun owners time to comply with rules, was extended by another year and a half, and advocates have been watching closely for details of an expected mandatory buy-back program.
“It’s now or never,” says Heidi Rathjen, a spokesperson for a PolySeSouvient, a group that advocates for gun control, and a former student at Montreal’s École Polytechnique who was there the day a shooter walked in and killed 14 people.
“I mean, if (Marco) Mendicino doesn’t do it, I don’t know,” she said, referring to the federal public safety minister. “We can’t keep doing this forever. We’ve been fighting for over three decades. What more do they need?”
Countries around the world have grappled with assault weapons in the wake of mass shootings. An oft-cited example is New Zealand. After the Christchurch massacre in 2019, in which 51 worshippers were killed at two mosques, that country passed legislation to crack down on the weapons. Less than a year after the tragedy, 50,000 guns had been returned via a government buyback scheme.
Politicians in Canada have struggled to balance the needs of hunters and sport shooters with public safety, says R. Blake Brown, a history professor at Halifax’s Saint Mary’s University who has written a book on the history of gun control.
The result has been a winding and controversial legislative approach.
The legal foundation for gun ownership in Canada is different than in the U.S., he explained in conversation with the Star.
While the U.S. Constitution famously defends the right to bear arms, Canadian law generally allows for guns to be used for hunting, sport shooting or collecting, so the debate around access has bubbled along those lines.
“Firearms are definitely allowed to be held in Canada, but not for personal protection,” he said. “The firearms community in Canada divides itself into three groups … hunters, those that used call themselves target-shooters, now, I think they prefer the term sport shooters, and gun collectors.”
Assault rifles were introduced to the commercial market in Canada in the 1970s.
The AR-15 is possibly the best known of them.
The AR is for Armalite, the company that first manufactured it, according to an article in the Boston Herald; though the rights were eventually sold to Colt, which also made a version for the U.S. military, called the M-16.
AR-15 style weapons are semi-automatic weapons, meaning the trigger must be pulled to fire each shot, that are lightweight and designed to be fired quickly, with little recoil for a user. Their appeal lies in the fact that they are customizable and easy to use, their threat in that they fire bullets faster than handguns and cause more devastating flesh wounds as a result.
In 1977, the Canadian government passed Bill C-51, which required new purchasers to have a Firearms Acquisition Certificate, and outlawed all automatic weapons — meaning those that shoot multiple bullets with one pull of the trigger.
The law already recognized different categories for weapons, including unrestricted, restricted — when you could legally own something but needed extra training or could only use it in certain ways — and outright prohibited, but adjusted the qualifications for each.
It laid out that any weapon that wasn’t suited “for hunting or sporting purposes” would be restricted, meaning you’d need more training and a special licence to have one. But it wasn’t a blanket ban, Brown notes, and while it included many semi-automatic weapons, the prohibition was generally only aimed at short-barrelled ones that could be concealed.
The decision to only limit guns with shorter barrels was controversial, and the government quickly decided to restrict five more guns because, as Brown recounts, they were seen has having no legitimate “hunting or sporting purposes.”
One of the five? The AR-15.
But owners of the rifle protested, and, two years later, Joe Clark’s Conservative government removed the rifle’s restricted status.
A decade later, “widespread awareness of the dangers of semi-automatic assault-style firearms” was ushered in with the Montreal massacre in 1989. Students organized a petition for a ban on “military or paramilitary weapons” that got more than half a million signatures and federal politicians came out in support.
In response to the massacre, the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney introduced new gun controls that strengthened background checks, and imposed a 28-day waiting period for an acquisition certificate as well as mandatory training, and increased penalties for gun crimes. Large magazines for assault weapons were also prohibited.
But instead of blanket banning certain categories of guns through legislation, Kim Campbell, then the Conservatives’ minister of justice, said that using Orders in Council — essentially a shortcut that sees Cabinet draft tweaks to law or decide things such as appointments without dealing with Parliament — would allow them to be much more flexible about which type of guns they targeted.
Cabinet used those powers to prohibit or restrict many rifles, and things such as long-ranger sniper rifles, which were “significant steps” toward limiting assault rifles, Brown writes.
Among the weapons made restricted, meaning it could still be owned legally, but with extra safeguards, was the AR-15.
The approach was and remains divisive.
Rathjen, the PolySeSouvient spokesperson, calls it a “whack-a-mole” approach to gun control, in which the government continued to target individual guns, even as manufacturers churned out more and more models.
For example, one gun left unrestricted at this point was another semi-automatic rifle known as the Ruger Mini-14. It was the gun used in the Montreal massacre.
But Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition for Gun Control, said the strategy makes sense — gun-makers are constantly churning out new models, and having some flexibility about which guns are banned means the legislation doesn’t have to be updated each time.
The key, though, is making sure the list is kept current, and it hasn’t always been.
“Say I ban an AK-47. If you focus only on the brand and model and make, then they’ll make a similar gun, they’ll paint it green and call it something else,” she said.
When Jean Chrétien led the Liberals back to power in 1993, a laundry list of new firearms were added to the prohibited category, according to Brown, including things such as the Thompson submachine-gun and the AK-47. They also eventually banned the Ruger Mini-14.
The Chrétien government also created the Firearms Act as a legislative home for many rules pertaining to licensing of guns, as well as the long-gun registry, which would later be scrapped by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.
It was also Harper, gun-control advocates say, who failed to keep up with the restriction of new weapons on the market, and loosened restrictions on some automatics.
The current Liberal government’s 2015 election platform included a pledge to get both handguns and assault weapons off the street.
For Cukier, the Liberals’ ban on an additional 1500 plus assault weapons is what gun-control advocates have been pushing for.
But she pointed out that gun violence is complicated, and that targeting one type while neglecting others ignores the fact that the guns used in mass killings are often very different from those in murders and again in suicides.
Polling suggests that public support for gun control is high. In 2020, Angus Reid found 78 per cent of Canadians supported a ban on assault weapons, including almost half of current gun owners. In 2021, a Leger poll found that 66 per cent of Canadians surveyed wanted stricter gun control.
Cukier argued that Canada has increasingly imported rhetoric about weaponry from the United States, and said she doesn’t see young people rejecting assault weapons, for example, in the same way her generation did.
The number of handguns, which are restricted, owned legally in this country is only growing, she said.
“I think we really are at an inflection point,” she said. “It’s really been erosion on multiple levels. Erosion in the law, erosion in the application of the law, but also a real shift in the discourse around firearms versus public safety.”
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