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Matt Gurney: Memo to David Lametti. You didn't 'get it right' because it's impossible
The sooner the Liberals realize they're trying to do the impossible with their gun ban, the better it'll be for them.
By: Matt Gurney
After his government's sudden decision to pull its controversial rifle-banning amendments from an unrelated handgun-"freezing" bill last week, Attorney General and Justice Minister David Lametti did the media circuit on Sunday, conceding that his government screwed up.
His language was kinder than that, as you'd expect. "We didn’t quite get it right," is how he put it to Mercedes Stephenson of Global News. What his government spent weeks defending "had a little too much reach," he now grants.
Well, gosh. I guess that's what happens when you decide to ram what would amount to the most dramatic change to Canadian gun-control legislation in a generation into a largely unrelated bill inappropriately late into the legislative process, and then react to all criticism of what you're proposing by angrily accusing the critics of spreading misinformation. Hard to imagine where the Liberals might have gone wrong on this one!
But let’s skip the mockery and really zoom in on something else that's in that Global News story. Here's Lametti again: “It was never our intention to go after hunting rifles. It was always our intention to go after handguns and assault rifles ... We heard a number of important voices in the community, particularly [gun-control-advocacy group] PolySeSouvient, who wanted a definition, an evergreen definition, and so we tried it.”
Gave finding an evergreen definition a whirl, eh? Didn’t quite work out? Well, Mr. Attorney General and Justice Minister, sir, I have good news and bad news. And then worse news.
The good news: no one could have gotten it right!
The bad news: because what the Liberals are trying to do is impossible.
The worse news: it's impossible entirely because your government has created such a mess of things, all in pursuit of political advantage, that, in a delightful irony, you have utterly boxed yourselves in, and must now pick your poison and drink deeply of it. Lametti’s appearance on Global is what being hoisted by your own petard looks like in Canadian politics, circa 2023, and it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving bunch.
Classifying guns is complicated. There are a lot of ways to do it. You can do it by the "action": is it a pump action? A lever action? Is it semi-automatic, or even fully automatic? You can do it by the length of the total firearm, or the length of just the barrel. You can do it by the caliber of the ammunition. You can do it by the type of magazine the firearm uses, and what its capacity is (the magazine is the compartment, which can be removable or integrated with the firearm, that holds the ammunition). You can try and be targeted with your definitions, or you can just go across the board and say "All rifles are allowed but all handguns are banned." The point here isn't to argue what the policy should be, but simply to note that whatever your policy is, you have to be able to define it in a way that makes sense.
Canada's current gun laws date, more or less, to the 1990s. They've been changed a bunch of times since, for better or worse, but that's when the current overall system of firearms legislation began. We came up with three broad categories of firearm then. There are "non-restricted" firearms, which you must be licensed to own, and mostly mean very typical rifles and shotguns, of which millions of licensed Canadians own many millions. There's also the "restricted" category, which basically meant handguns — either semi-automatic pistols or revolvers. These require extra licensing, more background checks and training, and are subject to much stricter conditions for storage and use. And then there's the very rare "prohibited" firearms, which are mostly either very compact handguns, or fully automatic weapons, including machine guns, which were owned by Canadians already when the new laws came in almost 30 years ago. These owners were given a special and highly limited rights to retain the firearms they already owned, but not to transfer them to others, except to someone else with a rare prohibited licence, or to a direct descendent. (That last bit was to cover family heirlooms.)
None of the above is as simple as I've just described it. Weird absurdities have been part of the system from the outset. The reason for these absurdities was always political. Back in the 1990s, the Liberals, under then-prime minister Jean Chrétien, realized that the categories above would result in certain kinds of rifle (including the AR-15) being classified as non-restricted, and subject to the least onerous controls. Unhappy with the optics of that, and other similar examples, they wrote in exceptions to the way some firearms are categorized. A firearm would be categorized by its technical specifications unless the government specifically ordered it classified as something else, is probably the easiest way to summarize a complicated policy.
Using the AR-15 again, according to the “evergreen” technical definitions we settled on in the 1990s, that’s a non-restricted gun. To avoid awkward political questions, the then-Liberals deemed it a “restricted” firearm, and therefore subject to tighter controls.
There were other similar examples, and they resulted, as noted above, in a lot of absurdities, with very similar guns categorized differently, but since only a relatively small number of firearms were so specially categorized, the system more or less functioned reasonably well for decades. The absurdities were limited enough to be broadly known and adapted to, and the overall system made enough sense to function coherently enough to do a reasonably good job regulating the sale, ownership and use of firearms in Canada. And very successfully: gun crime by licensed gun owners in Canada is, as is well known, quite rare. The system basically worked, and was working.
And then Trudeau, Lametti and Friends showed up and stepped in it.
Let's just call a spade a spade: most of what the Liberals have done with gun control in recent years is almost entirely for political purposes. During their first term, the majority parliament between 2015-2019, the Liberals spent years studying Canadian gun policy, and came up with Bill C-71, which changed ... not all that much. I didn't like C-71, and said so at the time, but it was a surprisingly modest series of changes. And credit where due: some of the changes were good.
The most interesting thing about C-71, though, was how limited it is. It was a tacit and grudging admission, back when these guys still told themselves they believed what they said about evidence-based policy, that the status quo in Canadian firearms policy was ... pretty good.
But hey, then politics happened. The sunny ways days ended. Liberal fortunes waned. Scandals and baggage and awkward photos of the PM in his younger days accumulated. And suddenly, the Liberals were talking a lot about banning assault rifles. They talked about it even more after the 2019 election reduced them to a parliamentary minority, leaving them dependent on a cluster of urban and suburban ridings in Quebec and Greater Toronto where support for just about any half-coherent sounding gun-control measure is typically high. The Liberals didn't do much of anything — mostly just talk, as is their style. Then, in early 2020, there was the horrific massacre in Nova Scotia, and within days, the Liberals announced they were banning 1,500 models of assault rifle. (It was actually far fewer — closer to 20 — but the Liberals counted each different version and brand as an entirely different rifle to get to a more-impressive sounding figure. Those fierce opponents of disinformation at work again!)
Anything even close to meeting a broadly shared definition of "assault rifle" was already banned in Canada, of course — it had been classified "prohibited" back in the 1990s. There's no universally agreed upon definition of an "assault rifle," but those who know guns could agree in broad terms what it would mean — and in Canada, they were all banned, and had been for decades. So the Liberals, keen to have their lookin’-tough-and-bold moment, started talking about "assault-style" rifles.
Appending "-style" to anything is a gigantic red flag for bullshit, as I've noted here before. That somehow failed to deter them, alas, setting the stage for their current woes.
To actually ban these 20-some-odd types of rifles back in 2020, the Liberals did that thing I mentioned above: they came up with an executive order that overrode what the classification of these rifles should be, given their technical specifications, and simply deemed them prohibited on the cabinet’s say-so, their technical specifications be damned. Since very few of the owners would have the rare prohibited licences, this effectively banned them — legal owners suddenly became unable to legally own the property they had purchased in good faith under the existing rules. The only reason they still have the rifles is because, as is typical of the government, they’ve failed to get the deliverology part right — nothing has been done to enact the ban beyond a bunch of studies and reports.
This reclassification is legal. The government has the authority to do this. But it instantly created more of those absurdities we've had kicking around since the 1990s. You'd have two functionally similar guns — sometimes almost functionally identical — with completely opposite classifications because one had the special status of VERY BAD AND SCARY MILITARY ASSAULT RIFLE-STYLE bestowed on it by the cabinet and the other didn't.
This wasn't good. It took a system that generally functioned well enough despite a few absurdities and layered on a lot more absurdities. But it probably wasn't fatal. The system could have survived it. But then Lametti and Co. came along and, as he said in his own words, "wanted a definition, an evergreen definition," for what is (and is not) an "assault-style" rifle.
This is totally possible! Hell, what they came up with would work. The Liberals declared that any rifle that fires centrefire ammunition (full-sized rounds, for those not familiar with the jargon) and that had a detachable magazine that could hold more than five rounds would be deemed "assault-style." I think that's a dumb definition, but it is, at least, a coherent definition. An “evergreen” one, as per Lametti. The problem is, it’s a very broad definition, one that is unavoidably going to include potentially millions of rifles, including again probably millions of rifles legally and safely owned by people who followed the rules as they’ve existed for decades — people the Liberals had no intention, and even less desire, to piss off. Lots of these firearms are absolutely mundane hunting rifles, used for such purpose each year.
This is where and how the LSS Trudeau smacked right into the iceberg of reality. The fundamental problem the Liberals have, and again, it's one of their own making is that there is simply no way to come up with an "evergreen definition" that is going to effectively cover something that's as much made-up bullshit as this government’s notion of a firearm "-style." Remember what I said before about the absurdity of two different rifles that are functionally identical having completely opposite classifications? You can't solve that with a coherent technical definition because the problem is fundamentally incoherent and the opposite of technical. The Liberals are trying to come up with an evergreen technical definition to fix the various absurdities they created precisely by their own decision to abandon evergreen technical definitions. And that’s not possible.
This is what I meant when I said I had good news for the Liberals (they failed because no one could have succeeded!) and also bad and worse news for them (it's impossible and it's their fault).
This is the reality, and it's a reality that's obvious to anyone who knows the first damned thing about this file. This, sadly, does not seem to include either our attorney general and justice minister, nor our minister of public safety.
So. Here we are. Now what, you ask? It’s like this. The Liberals have to make a choice, and they really only have three options.
They can come up with an evergreen definition that actually makes technical sense and bans the rifles they want banned, but then they also have to ban a ton of rifles they don't want to ban that also fit that evergreen definition, and people — including, ahem, Indigenous Canadians — will be very angry to have those rifles banned. Or they can come up with a different evergreen definition that also makes technical sense and avoids infuriating Indigenous Canadians, hunters and others by banning fewer rifles than the government wants, which will then outrage their allies in the gun-control-advocacy groups. Or they can try and carefully thread the needle by banning certain Rifles That Are Politically Bad for Liberals while not banning certain Rifles That Are Politically Fine for Liberals, using special categorizations, but there goes their sought-after evergreen definition. Guys like me will then loudly and repeatedly mock their gun control laws as being completely absurd and incoherent, and the worst thing is for Mr. Lametti and friends, we'll be right.
So sorry, guys, but that’s the bottom line. Reality sucks sometimes, but it always has its way in the end, and for David Lametti, Marco Mendicino, Justin Trudeau and all the others, this is the reality. They're struggling because they've promised something that is impossible, probably because they’re so twisted up in their own manoeuvring and groupthink that they didn’t realize it was impossible. It's still not clear that they fully understand what they've gotten themselves into here.
In the spirit of cooperation and civic duty, here's my honest advice to them: just quietly drop it. Seriously, guys. You probably think I'm just trying to lead you into a trap here, but honestly, that's not needed. You've fallen pretty spectacularly assbackwards into a trap of your own making on this file already — you clearly don't need any help from me on that score. So truly, fellows, here’s my take: The sooner you realize that the reason you can't make this work is because you've put yourselves in a literally impossible position, the better it's going to go for you.
I'm not holding my breath, but these are, again, the facts. It's up to the PM and his ministers to decide how much more time, money and political capital they'd like to invest in trying to bend objective reality to their preferred political form.
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