By John Orth
Canadian gun owners are slowly digging our own graves with our timid, apologetic approach to gun rights. Most Canadian gun owners, and most Canadian pro-gun organizations, have utilized a sporting purposes only argument in support of civilian gun ownership. Self defence has become a taboo topic. This reticence is a huge blunder. By failing to actively promote handgun ownership for self defence, we leave ourselves tongue-tied at the most critical juncture in the gun control debate: the aftermath of a mass murder.
The march towards civilian disarmament has followed the same pattern in nearly every English speaking nation. Pro-gun and anti-gun forces generally battle to a draw until there is a mass murder involving firearms. After a massacre has taken place, outraged citizens will grasp at any solution, regardless of how limited its chance of success. It is at these times the gun grabbers have scored their greatest victories.
British gun prohibition laws were enacted in 1988 as a response to the Hungerford massacre in 1987, then again last year as a result of Dunblane. In Canada, C-17 and C-68 can both be traced back to Ecole Polytechnique. The impetus for C-51 in 1977 was an incident in which a student ran amok with a rifle in a school. The recent Australian ban on semiautomatic rifles stems from the Port Arthur massacre. Earlier Australian legislation resulted largely from two mass murders which occurred in Melbourne in 1987. The 1992 amendments to the New Zealand Arms Act, which restricted access to military look-alikes, were the government's answer to the Aramoana massacre in 1990.
This pattern has been repeated so many times you would think gun owners would have recognized the pitfalls by now. We have not. Time and time again we are drawn into the same debate. Time and time again we offer the same ineffectual arguments. Time and time again we lose, and the noose is pulled ever tighter around our necks.
Allow me to offer this generalized scenario for a firearm massacre and its aftermath:
- A psychopath acquires a gun, usually by legal means.
- Using X type of gun with Y type of magazine, he shoots and kills a large number of people in a crowded location.
- After a delay of approximately half an hour, the police arrive.
- The murderer kills himself, or is shot by police.
- The public is outraged. "How can this happen?" people ask. "What can we do to prevent it from happening again?"
- Anti-gun groups are quick with answers. We must ban X type of gun and Y type of magazine. Such things, they say "are only good for killing people." We must also register all guns, place restrictions on the sale of ammunition, and increase licensing and testing requirements for prospective gun owners.
- Pro-gun groups argue that you cannot legislate against insanity. They suggest no amount of gun control would have prevented this tragedy, since anyone who wants a gun can always acquire one illegally. They point out that the use of gun type X or magazine Y was irrelevant. Since the killer had half an hour to rampage before police arrived, he could have killed just as many with a double barrel shotgun. We complain loudly that hunting, collecting, and target shooting are legitimate sports, and the prohibition of certain types of firearms would place unfair restrictions on these activities.
- The public examines both sides of the debate. They see clearly the pro-gun side offers nothing but selfish excuses and fatalistic platitudes, while the anti-gun side offers a solution which, superficially at least, appears to be workable. Should we really be surprised when most people who do not own firearms side with our opposition?
Pro-gun forces have failed completely to grasp the mechanics of the debate. The public is seeking a method of minimizing the possibility a similar massacre could happen again. Our opponents suggest numerous ways of tightening gun control laws which they say will prevent a comparable tragedy. We then attempt to demonstrate why their plans are not be feasible. But we never offer any viable solutions of our own. When backed into a corner, and pressed to provide some kind of positive suggestion, we will sometimes mutter something about bringing back the death penalty, or increasing penalties for the use of a firearm in a crime. But harsh punishment would be completely ineffective as a strategy to combat mass murder. As I have already stated, in the majority of cases the murderer kills himself, either directly, or by deliberately placing himself in a position where he is shot by police. It is unlikely the threat of a long prison term would be much of a deterrent to someone who has decided to commit suicide in a blaze of gunfire.
There is one very effective method of preventing mass murder which does not involve gun prohibition, but it is one Canadian gun owners have typically been loathe to suggest: concealed carry of handguns. Somehow, our opponents have been able to convince us that anyone who advocates such a thing is a primitive barbarian, guilty of simply beastly behaviour. We are Canadians after all, not violent, uncivilized Americans. Surely no rational human being could endorse arming against his fellow citizens.
To this, we nod our heads in stupefied agreement. "Of course we are Canadians" we say "We only wanted our guns for target shooting and hunting."
Anti-gunners have cleverly duped us into agreeing to debate on terms which will place us permanently on the defensive. We are fighting with both hands tied behind our backs. We might dodge their punches, but we can never score any of our own. It is not surprising gun owners in Canada, Australia, and Great Britain have been fighting losing battles for the past thirty years. Under these conditions, how could one expect anything else?
The only English speaking nation in which anti-gunners have often failed to parlay public outrage over a mass murder into gun prohibition legislation, is the United States. Most people assume this is simply a reflection of the lobbying power of the NRA. To some extent this is true. The US undoubtedly has the world's strongest pro-gun lobby. But this is not the principal reason for their success. The US is also the only country where pro-gun forces do not shy away from advocating the use of firearms for self defence. This is the critical distinction between the US and other English speaking nations.
It may be instructive to examine an American mass murder, and how their pro-self-defence position changes the nature of the subsequent debate.
On October 16, 1991 Suzanna Gratia was having lunch with her parents at Lubby's cafeteria in Killeen Texas. Suddenly, a man drove a truck through the front window and started shooting the customers. When it was over, twenty-two people lay dead, including both Ms. Gratia's parents. Ironically, Suzanna Gratia had a gun that day too - in her car. Texas law at the time did not permit citizens to carry a handgun on their person.
Ms. Gratia immediately became active in the gun rights struggle. She was the prime mover behind a law, passed in 1995, which allows citizens of Texas to carry concealed handguns. As she testified before the Texas House Public Safety Committee: "I'm not saying I could have stopped this guy, but I would have had a chance. The fact is you can't go up against an armed man unless you are armed. Someone legislated me out of the right to protect myself and my loved ones."
American gun control groups understand the importance of the self defence issue. Sarah Brady has stated "To me, the only reason for guns in civilian hands is for sporting purposes." On a purely logical basis, this statement makes no sense. If we are not going to allow a farmer to possess a gun to protect the lives of his wife and children, then why should we give him one to shoot coyotes, and protect the lives of a coop full of chickens? From the standpoint of strategy however, the statement makes a great deal of sense. Sarah knows full well, once she restricts the list of acceptable reasons for firearms ownership to sporting uses only, her battle is won. Ultimately, every gun control argument can then be reduced to a contest between one person's life and another person's hobby.
After the Ecole Polytechnique massacre, when Wendy Cukier asked "Why do we allow people to own this type of gun?" the best we could manage was some mumbled excuse about the police not investigating Mr. Lepine's FAC application properly. A superior response would have been: "You should not be asking why a lunatic had a gun, but why no one else did." Of course, she would have described in lurid details how concealed carry would cause gun battles to erupt as people jostled for position at supermarket checkouts. She would have called us neanderthals. She would have accused us of being un-Canadian. But an aggressive response would have placed her on the defensive. The focus of the discussion would be shifted away from the viability of strict gun control, and towards the viability of concealed carry permits.
We must stop being so damned apologetic. It is the gun control activists that have blood on their hands, not us. Every time the do-gooders make it more difficult for law abiding citizens to acquire a gun, they guarantee someone else will be left to stand unarmed before an armed criminal or lunatic. Canadian citizens are dying like lab rats in some insane social engineering experiment, while most gun owners do nothing more than prattle on about the joys of moose hunting. The Ecole Polytechnique massacre should have steeled our resolve as much as it did the gun grabbers. Fourteen young women died needlessly. Fourteen young women died because their government did not trust them to possess a means of self defence. How many more deaths must there be before we find our damned backbones?
I am not suggesting all Canadian citizens should arm themselves. Such a thing is not necessary. Massacres generally occur in crowded locations where dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of people are nearby. If only one or two percent of the population carried handguns, there would be an excellent chance at least one armed citizen would be present at the site of any potential mass murder. Moreover, since the murderer would have no way of knowing which citizens were armed, they would essentially be waiting in ambush.
Canadian pro-gun forces have developed sound, cogent arguments to counter most gun prohibitionist propaganda relating to common criminal misuse of firearms (although even here a self defence argument would improve our position). We can rebut whatever they say about suicides and firearms accidents. However, we have nothing to offer on the topic of mass murder, because virtually the entire thrust of the pro-gun argument in Canada has been based on the sporting use of firearms. Those who claim we need guns to hunt ducks and shoot holes in paper, while the bullet riddled bodies of six year old children lie strewn across the floor of a Scottish public school, are engaged in a debate they cannot win.
At some point, there will be another massacre involving firearms in this country. It might come next week, it might not be for ten years, but it will happen. Unless all gun owners are prepared to promote the right to possess handguns for self defence, we will have nothing but lame excuses to offer the public when it occurs.
Time is running out. We need only look to Great Britain to see our future if we continue down this path. Several years ago, in the midst of the controversy following the Hungerford massacre, the British Shooting Sports Council had this to say about reports people were buying shotguns for self defence: "This, if it is a fact, is an alarming trend, and reflects sadly on our society."
British gun owners now suffer under legislation which completely prohibits all handguns, all semi-automatic and pump action rifles and all semi-automatic shotguns. All guns, and all gun owners, are registered.
Canadian firearm owners must examine what the mealy mouthed, sporting use only, approach to gun rights has done for the British, then ask ourselves if we want the same result.