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Matt Gurney: Liberals love evidence-based policy, so long as the evidence is convenient
Even the RCMP union is acknowledging that the so-called assault weapons ban is absolutely bogus. The government won't listen.
There's something so delightful about seeing someone hoist on their own petard. That's why a recent position paper by the National Police Federation, which represents tens of thousands of RCMP officers across Canada, brought a pleasant glow to my heart even on a cold, locked-down Toronto morning.
The NPF criticized the federal Liberals' gun buy-back programs and weapons bans, noting that costly legislation like this do not address urgent threats to public safety. Further, this legislation “diverts extremely important personnel, resources, and funding away from addressing the more immediate and growing threat of criminal use of illegal firearms.”
The poorly named proposal to ban “military assault weapons” — which doesn't actually target military assault weapons, or ban them — is terrible. If Canadians knew enough about the issue to be insulted, they would be. It’s good to see the NPF weighing in on a bad policy proposal.
It’s even better to see the NPF using the very phrases the federal Liberals cling to so dearly. The government should pursue a policy, the paper says, that is actually an “evidence-based approach.” They echo that later, after recommending the Liberals pursue a new direction, which the NPF calls, in contrast to what the Liberals have done, a “fact-based approach to protecting public safety and [preventing] gun violence.”
If you're a Liberal, that's gotta hurt.
Talking about gun policy in Canada is tricky, because the debate is highly technical. The regulation of firearms in this country, at least in theory, depends on the specifications of the firearm in question. Mode-of-operation, magazine capacity, ammunition calibre or barrel-bore width, barrel length, muzzle energy — these are all the criteria upon which a firearm is classified into one of three categories under Canadian law: prohibited, restricted or non-restricted. Any Canadian who wishes to own or borrow a firearm, or purchase ammunition, must be licenced, a process which includes mandatory safety training and daily automatic background checks.
Prohibited firearms are essentially banned in Canada; a relatively small number are held by private citizens who already possessed them when the current regulatory regime was brought in in the 1990s. The government of the day didn't want to get into the thorny issue of confiscation, so it let existing owners keep them under strict conditions. The vast majority of guns in Canada, and all new guns sold for decades, therefore fall into the other two categories. Restricted guns are generally pistols and revolvers, but also some rifles and shotguns. Non-restricted guns are run-of-the-mill hunting rifles and shotguns, though some sports-shooting rifles (used for target practice) are also included.
The above is all somewhat theoretical, as the regulations are twisted and pulled in a variety of ways to suit political ends, leaving a system that's tortured and confusing even for those of us who study it. But it gives you at least an idea of how the system is designed. If you know guns, of course, you knew all this already. If you don't, I wouldn't blame you if your eyes glazed over a bit while reading the above. Without a basic working familiarity with all the terminology and technical specs and regulations, it's damn hard to follow the debates over gun control. This is why I have to ask you non-aficionados to take my word for it: the Liberal proposal is really bad.
Well, actually, you don't have to take just my word for it. You can read the NPF's position paper, which makes at least some of the case. It notes, correctly, that “military style assault weapons” aren’t actually a thing that’s defined under Canadian law; it can therefore mean whatever the government of the day wants it to mean. True military style battle weapons — fully automatic weapons with high-capacity magazines and full-sized ammunition — are already effectively banned in Canada and have been for decades. Further, the NPF notes, firearms are used in a minority of homicides in Canada, a majority of those homicides are committed with handguns, and a majority of those killings are directly linked to organized crime or gang activity.
You’re probably starting to see the problem: Going after the guns that aren't being used in the crimes, and taking them from the people who aren't committing them, isn't a public-safety policy. It's a political gift to the Liberals' urban base, where the proposal is popular and gun literacy low (those two latter points are not unrelated).
While the ban is almost entirely a political sop, it’s probably a good political sop, alas. I'm sure the proposal will be very well received in ridings the Liberals would like to hold or flip. But it's still a stupid policy, even if it's popular. The Liberals are proposing to spend tons of money on this. They estimate hundreds of millions, but recall that the long-gun registry came in about 1,500 times overbudget. And all to "ban" some of the rifles used by a segment of the population — licenced and screened gun owners — that's been found to be the several times less likely to commit murder than those without licences.
It's a bad policy, aimed at the wrong people and the wrong problem, and the NPF is right to say so. One suspects that the Liberals’ oft-stated commitment to listen to the experts and the frontline workers fizzles when said experts and workers disagree with a preferred policy. In that case, well, the government knows best.
But the NPF also left a ton of material on the cutting room floor. The Liberal proposal is, in fact, far dumber than they dared say.
The Liberals boast of having banned 1,500 kinds of assault rifle (hundreds more were added later). This was, to put it mildly, bullshit — they banned 11 types of rifle, which have numerous (sometimes customized) variants. An example to help you non-gun folk understand how craven this is: the 2021 Honda Civic comes in four versions, each somewhat fancier and more expensive than the last. What the Liberals did with rifles was akin to banning the Civic and claiming to have banned four cars, counting each version as a separate vehicle. They can get away with it because the average Canadian knows even less about rifles than they do mid-sized sedans, but it's still galling to see the party that claims the high road on fact-based policymaking swindling the public like this.
It's also not even clear that the ban is precisely a ban. The order-in-council — the Liberals didn't bother going to parliament, and simply issued an executive decree — clearly stated that existing owners will be allowed to keep their rifles under a so-called grandfathering. But the Liberals’ public statements imply that owners will be forced to sell them back to the government. Even if it is the latter, the Liberals have now failed twice to find a private-sector entity that would oversee a buy-back program, and details on said program are scant. Public Safety Minister Bill Blair's office told the Globe and Mail that the buyback program would not use police resources, which raises the bizarre prospect of some independent contractor, retained by the government via whatever company made the lowest bid, showing up at someone's door to demand they hand over thousands of dollars' worth of property.
Does this seem like a good idea to anyone?
It gets worse. The "ban" is sloppy. It ended up dragging in firearms that absolutely no one was worried about, including some duck-hunting shotguns that ran afoul of a provision intended to ban grenade launchers. (Grenade launchers, to be clear, are not a major public safety issue in this country.) When this was pointed out, Blair rejected the claims that guns were accidentally caught by the Liberals’ wide net as "absolutely false" but left it to the RCMP to issue some vague explanation of why the law wouldn't be applied in the way a plain reading of the order-in-council suggests. As far as anyone knows, hundreds of types of mundane shotguns and hunting rifles remain on the banned list, not because they're "military style assault rifles," but because the Liberals wrote up the terms of their order-in-council in a hurry, released it before it was properly vetted in the immediate aftermath of the terrible shooting in Nova Scotia earlier this year, and haven't quite figured out how to fix this mess of their own making.
Oh, and that Nova Scotia shooting? The shooter wasn’t licenced and smuggled most of his guns in from the U.S. But I digress.
Accidentally banning some rifles and shotguns is bad, but this is arguably worse: the government didn't even ban all the rifles that fit its own criteria. Again, folks, if you need any proof that the motive is entirely political in nature, the Liberals banned 11 broad classifications of rifles (including, for instance, the AR-15 and the Ruger Mini-14, as shown in the photo above), while not banning many other kinds of rifles that are also semi-automatic, also fire 5.56 mm ammunition, and can hold the same number of rounds. Canada's gun stores and sports shooters instantly adjusted their buying patterns and kept on operating near normal. Today, anyone with a licence can buy a semi-automatic rifle that fires ammunition used in the banned rifles. Indeed, any problems they encounter won't be due to the Liberal "ban" — inventory is low because gun sales, particularly in the U.S., where most of Canada's supply is sourced, have gone through the roof during the pandemic and the uncertainty ahead of the recent presidential election.
Again, the Liberal "assault rifle ban" is good politics. Saying you’ve banned 1,500 kinds of rifles sounds a lot better than admitting that you’ve possibly, but not assuredly, banned 11 kinds of rifles, and that you screwed up and accidentally banned some hunting shotguns while you were at it. It lets them sound like they're getting tough on crime. But it's bad policy — it doesn't target the major cause of firearms-related homicide in Canada, was sloppily written, is full of absurdities and has no clear plan for execution. It won't save lives, and the police — the ones who can reasonably expect to be literally in the line of fire — are saying so. Unfortunately, when given a choice between a hard but meaningful policy change, or a splashy announcement that doesn’t really amount to much, the Liberals will do the latter almost every time.
Matt Gurney is a columnist for the National Post and TVO.org, and a radio host for SiriusXM’s Canada Talks, channel 167. He also writes at his personal Substack, Code 47, and tweets at Twitter.com/MattGurney.
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