Sound Smart About Guns, Canadian Edition

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In the light of recent tragic events in Orlando, I've noticed a lot of comments in my feeds about guns. Given what I've seen there, I thought it worthwhile to write a primer about how guns work, both mechanically and politically, with a Canadian perspective.

(Where my perspective comes from: I am Canadian, and do not have a
Purchase and Acquisition License. I have never fired a firearm.)

Guns in Canada

For most people, path to gun ownership passes through getting a Purchase and Acquisition License (PAL). This is not a trivial matter: it requires a safety course, personal references as to your stability, and notification of your spouse or ex, among other elements. I served as a reference for a PAL licensee: the phone interview was brief, but probed fairly hard to ensure the applicant had no violent tendencies or history of mental illness.

Guns in Canada are classified as non-restricted (most normal rifles and shotguns), restricted (some rifles and shotguns, virtually all legal handguns), and prohibited (automatic weapons, various other firearms due to either general rules like minimum length, or because they are named as prohibited).

Non-restricted and restricted weapons require a PAL. Restricted weapons are heavily restricted (surprise) as to where and how you can store, transport, or use them. Prohibited weapons are virtually impossible for regular citizens to own.

Canada has magazine limits: 10 rounds for pistols, effectively 5 rounds for high-powered rifles, where "high-powered" means you're hunting something bigger than a squirrel. (The rule is more technical; I'm simplifying.)

The Guns

The shooter in Orlando used a Sig Sauer MCX rifle and a Glock 17 pistol. Both were semi-automatic, and both were presumably legally acquired in the US (or at least were legally acquireable).

In Canada? The pistol is probably legal, but all pistols are Restricted Firearms in Canada, meaning that they are subject to very restrictive rules for most owners: you can keep it in your house; you can move it (unloaded and locked up) to a shooting range. And that's it. If the owner of a restricted firearm moves, they require a permit specifying when they will move the firearm to their new house. I was the accidental witness to a gentleman applying for such a permit a few years ago, and he asked for an 8-hour transport window; the police granted four. In short, pistols are treated very differently in Canada than they are in most US states (though US states vary considerably, too).

The rifle is trickier. It seems the MCX is Restricted in Canada, which means it would be subject to the same rules as a pistol. However, functionally equivalent rifles of a different brand and look would be completely legal. To be clear: many of the rules about restricting or prohibiting firearms in Canada are based on whether that firearm looks scary; I am not making that up.

Semi-auto, auto, and other

Both weapons used were apparently semiautomatic. This simply means that pulling the trigger fires a single bullet, and firing the next shot requires the user to release the trigger and pull again (but no other action is required). Almost all handguns work this way, with some technical caveats, including revolvers dating back to the Wild West era. Most rifles also work this way, though bolt-action rifles are also common.

The distinction here is as opposed to automatic (or "full-auto") weapons, which will fire bullets continuously when the trigger is pulled, until the firearm is out of bullets. It is also as opposed to weapons of various types that need to be cocked between shots (typically referred to by the type of "action": bolt-action is the most common on rifles which are not semi-auto, and shotguns use various action, most famously the pump action. The details are technical, but all of these not-semi-auto (and not-auto) weapons require a second movement between trigger pulls to make them ready for another shot.

Automatic weapons are very hard for civilians to come by in either Canada or the US. They're virtually unknown as a factor in modern gun crimes, as far as I can see.

Semi-auto is relatively common on what you may think of as hunting rifles, as is bolt action.

What does this mean? Rate of fire and accuracy. Simplifying wildly, an automatic weapon can shoot faster but less accurately; the best bolt-action rifles are the most accurate, but are the slowest-firing.

Assault Rifles?

Terrifying Hello Kitty AR-15
This actually exists, and I have no opinion about it

To the extent the term means anything, it refers to rifles used in a military context. These are infantry weapons: if you've heard of the AR-15 or the AK-47, these are exemplary assault rifles. The military versions are generally capable of automatic fire; most are available in civilian versions (widely available in the US; mostly Restricted in Canada). The thing to understand is that military rifles are not really different in technology or firepower from hunting rifles: if anything, typical assault rifles fire cartridges that are in the low to moderate end of what hunting rifles use, considering range and firepower.

The distinctive look associated with assault rifles is largely down to the "furniture": the grips and braces that aren't part of the firing mechanism, but are important for holding the firearm. On hunting rifles these bits are frequently made of wood, and on military rifles they are often made of black plastic or formed metal. But these choices, while somewhat practical, are substantially cosmetic: you can get wood furniture to dress down an AR-15, and you can get black plastic furniture (and "tactical" accessory rails, and whatever other dress-up you like) for hunting rifles. This has led to the shorthand term "black rifles" for such dressed-up guns, which describes the aesthetic in play. The term also points to the fact that the characteristics most people associate with "assault rifle" are cosmetic.

normal ranch rifle
Ruger Mini-14
Terrifying Assault Rifle -- no wait, same gun as above, different furniture
Ruger Mini-14

To highlight the case, here's a review of a Ruger Mini-14. It looks like an archetypal sporting rifle (wood, no visible clip) because it is. It shoots .223 ammo and has a semi-automatic action. This is virtually the same cartridge (roughly same size and power, nearly interchangeable) as the NATO 5.56 ammunition used by most modern military rifles. It's a gun that the reviewer above recommends for coyotes: hunting a deer or larger animals would almost certainly be done with a more powerful gun.

A Bigger Picture on Guns

When it comes to gun violence, mass killings like Orlando should be understood as unicorn phenomena: rare (and getting rarer). The meat of gun violence, especially in the US, is either grimly domestic (a murderer shooting an acquaintance or relative) or part of some other criminal activity (gang activity is a common reason). While mass killers are biased towards rifles, in the overall US murder stats, long guns are dwarfed by handgun murders (If you look at that table, sharp objects are used to kill about as many people in the US as all types of rifles and shotguns combined).

Final Thoughts

I don't have anything very clever to say about crime, or mass murder. Before you assume this is a US phenomenon, remember Paris. Canada seems to have found a better equilibrium (tight restrictions on handguns, moderate restrictions on most long guns, and some fairly silly regulations about "scary-looking" guns) than the USA, but we started in a very different place and remain a very different country, and one that put serious restrictions on handgun ownership in the 19th century. Hopefully this essay will clarify some confusing technical details, though.