Tom Gabor: Canada’s Assault Weapons Ban—Can the US Follow?

Following the murder of 22 people in Canada, the country’s worst multiple murder, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada would ban the use, purchase, sale, transportation, and importation of assault-style weapons.  One of the guns used by the perpetrator was classified by investigators as “a military-style assault rifle.”  The ban covers 1,500 models and types of firearms and took effect on May 1, less than two weeks after the murder spree.

Trudeau asserted that “These weapons were designed for one purpose and one purpose only: to kill the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time. There is no use and no place for such weapons in Canada.”

The government outlined the justification for the ban.  Assault-style firearms were deemed unsuitable for hunting or sports shooting purposes, given their inherent danger to public safety. The firearms prohibited were designed for military uses and were capable of injuring or killing humans quickly in large numbers given their tactical design and capability of holding a quickly reloadable large-capacity magazine. While some of these newly prohibited firearms were previously used for hunting or sporting purposes, the Canadian Government took the view that the significant risk they pose to public safety outweighs any justification for their continued use, given that numerous types of firearms remain available for recreational purposes.  The new ban also correctly notes that many of the deadliest mass shootings around the world have been perpetrated with assault-style weapons.

A large majority (80%) of Canadians support the ban and Canada is by no means an anti-gun country.  In fact, it has one of the world’s highest per capita gun ownership rates, with about 35 guns per 100 people.  Canada’s response to the massacre is similar to bans of entire classes of weapons seen in Australia, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand following large-scale mass shootings and murder sprees in those countries.

The Canadian Prime Minister announced a two-year “amnesty period” to allow gun owners to comply with the law.  The government is planning to buy back the banned weapons, although they left open the possibility that existing owners could apply to have them grandfathered.  This issue, as well as the planned compensation for those who currently possess the banned weapons, will be addressed in future legislation.

The Trudeau Government should be applauded for its decisive and prompt action, as the political will to undertake such a significant step tends to wane with time, especially as there are financial costs to such a broad buyback of arms.  In addition, discussing but failing to impose the ban immediately has been known to lead to a surge in sales of the weapons expected to be the subject of an anticipated ban.

One of the lamest but most common criticisms of the ban was voiced by Canada’s Conservative Party leader:   “The people who will not follow these new regulations are the drug dealers and the gun traffickers, and the people who choose to do evil with firearms. So we believe this is completely ineffective.” 

This is utter nonsense.  Many mass shootings are committed by people without criminal records and, often, the weapons used are obtained legally.  By failing to ban these arms, we are making it easier for a prospective mass shooter to purchase them legally.  Studies in the US show that over half of all mass shootings are domestic killings, some of which spill over to include other victims.  In addition, not everyone has easy access to illicit markets.  For example, teenagers who target a school may find it difficult to purchase an AR-15 from traffickers or to afford such weapons once they are available through illicit markets only.  Like prohibited drugs, the cost of smuggled firearms may be many times that of the same models obtained from a gun shop.

As the Nova Scotia shooter is believed to have obtained some of his weapons illegally from the US, concern remains that some people can circumvent a ban by obtaining the prohibited weapons south of the border.  There is no doubt that additional resources are required at crossings along the 4,000 mile US-Canada border to minimize trafficking into Canada.  Even with a porous border, the ban will prevent the legal purchase of many highly lethal models of firearms within Canada.

The Canadian Government has kept the door open for the possible grandfathering of existing weapons covered by the ban.  What justification is there for the grandfathering of a weapon the government claims is meant for war and unsuited for civilians?  Exempting weapons already manufactured at the time the US Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 took effect had the perverse effect of increasing the arsenal of weapons to be banned as manufacturers ramped up production when the ban was imminent.  This situation seriously undercut the impact of the ban as models subject to the ban could still be sold once the law had taken effect.  The prompt Canadian ban will prevent the arsenal from increasing but, with grandfathering, a large number of weapons now subject to the ban (estimated at 100,000) will still be in circulation.

The new regulations recognize the possibility that new models of firearms, with simply cosmetic modifications, can be developed to get around the ban.  Rather than simply identifying models covered by the ban, I would like to see a clear definition of an “assault weapon”.  While several features should be considered as part of this definition, I’ll leave it to the gunsmiths to come up with one. 

Opponents of the ban argue that it is handguns that ought to be banned as they are used in far more crimes than assault-style rifles.  In Canada, handguns have been restricted and subject to registration since the 1930s.  Very few Canadians are authorized to carry guns for self-defense.  Still, they are more frequently used in crime than semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15.  Further restrictions on handguns may be considered at a later date. 

By contrast, in the State of Florida alone, two million people have permits to carry concealed weapons.  Most US states have “shall issue” laws, requiring the granting of such permits when basic conditions are met.  Then, there are about a dozen states that allow the carrying of handguns without any permit or training at all.  In some states, guns can even be carried into public buildings, including legislatures that are in session, as we saw recently in Michigan.   America is an outlier not just in number of guns per capita, but in the permissiveness of right-to-carry laws in many states.  At the same time, the US has by far the most serious gun violence problem among affluent countries.  The gun homicide rate is 25 times that of these other countries, when they are considered together.  Still, gun rights advocates argue that guns make us safer as a society.  There is not a shred of credible evidence to support this fantasy.

Can the US follow Canada in banning assault-style weapons?  Of course it can.  In the landmark 2008 Heller ruling, Justice Scalia of the US Supreme Court noted that weapons deemed to be “dangerous” were not protected by the Second Amendment.  The Framers would never have envisioned weapons like the AR-15.  In fact, Michael Waldman, the Second Amendment scholar from the Brennan Center for Justice, found that in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and in the notes of James Madison and the other participants, private gun ownership never came up at all!    

5 thoughts on “Tom Gabor: Canada’s Assault Weapons Ban—Can the US Follow?

  1. Canada has a gun registration and the government knows who has the guns. They should just go into the homes and take them. After all Canada has no 4th ammendment.
    Take them, take them all.

  2. The language of the Heller ruling was “dangerous and unusual”. All guns are dangerous. some are unusual. Unfortunately for those who want to ban AR style rifles, Uncle Sam has let them be sold for the last half century or longer, making sure they are not “unusual”.

    As far as the usual bromide about “designed for one purpose and one purpose only”, one might remember that all military style weapons were designed to control the battlefield. Indeed, the Civilian Marksmanship Program has sold Garands and M1 Carbines as well as M1911s to the public for a long time. Like ARs most of these are not owned by those wanting to kill as many people as possible but by folks who enjoy shooting guns.

    All that be as it may. This is a topic for legislatures and courts. Nice read here:

    Dangerous and Unusual Weapons Scholarship Second Amendment
    Unbannable Arms?
    By Joseph Blocher on Friday, November 15, 2019

    “…What arguably emerges from Heller, then, are not two but three categories of arms. “Dangerous and unusual” weapons are categorically excluded from coverage and can be banned without raising any constitutional concerns. They are the equivalent of libel or securities fraud under the First Amendment. Weapons “in common use” are covered by the Second Amendment, so bans involving them are subject to scrutiny—a prohibition on high-powered rifles or high capacity magazines, for example, must be appropriately tailored to a sufficient government interest. Finally, within the general set of constitutionally covered common-use weapons, some classes cannot be banned, regardless of the efficacy of the law or the government interests involved. This last category includes handguns, which Heller emphasized have a unique connection to self-defense. Are there other classes of arms that are similarly immune from bans? (I try to unpack that and related questions in “Bans,” which is forthcoming soon in the Yale Law Journal and from which some of this discussion is drawn.)…”

      • No problem, Tom. Hope you and yours are well.

        Even Professor Blocher leaves the soap box having contributed to the fog index on this subject. What is a high powered rifle? Practically any big game hunting rifle used to be called a “high powered rifle” because they fired a bullet powerful enough to kill, safely and humanely, a large animal. Such as my bolt action Winchester 30/06 that I gifted to my brother in law when I became a vegetarian. This term has gotten confused lately with people referring to black rifles as powerful because they can fire a lot of small, high velocity bullets in a short time.

        The same round that the AR-15 in military costume fires used to be called a “varmint” round back in the day. We used a slightly different but even hotter variation, the 0.225 Winchester (now obsolete), when I was a kid to hunt woodchucks. Military liked the Remington 223 (slightly higher performance 5.56×45 NATO in military dress) because it was powerful enough to incapacitate an enemy soldier and poke a hole through a helmet while small enough to let the trooper carry a lot of ammo without falling over from the weight.

        Agree with Blocher, albeit I’m not a law professor, otherwise.. One might see a more conservative court come down, eventually, saying black rifles are a sufficient risk to highly regulate but do it in a way that satisfies government interest with the least intrusion on rights. Say, a federal or state license to possess if the move to ban these fails. We see almost no misuse of full auto guns because they are a PIA to legally own under the NFA, so only committed gun nuts own them. Not teenagers or random men with a chip on their shoulder.

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