Tim Thurley: In Canadian gun laws, dysfunction and confusion is deliberate
Some say our classification system is politicized. And there's some truth to that. But the real answer is worse. The system is ... random.
By: Tim Thurley
Canadians often assume our government is doing its best. Not the politicians, sure, but there is a broad assumption that at least the bureaucrats tirelessly working behind the scenes to implement political decisions must have a grasp on the facts and exhibit some consistency in decision-making. In few places is there a larger discrepancy between this perception and the grimmer reality than in how the government classifies firearms.
I’ve long had an interest in firearms policy. Those familiar with it will know how onerous the Access to Information process is and wonder why I partake on my own time and dime; I can answer only that a graduate M.Sc. thesis on legislative impacts on firearm homicide and time working in politics and government have made me a glutton for punishment. More seriously, it’s a fascinating field, and I have some insight into political and policy processes. And as any specialist in a hot-button policy area knows, there is nothing more frustrating than seeing bad policy enacted in your field again, and again, and again.
Firearms are classified into three categories under the Firearms Act: non-restricted, restricted, and prohibited. All three require a separate level of licence, obtained with escalating difficulty after multiple courses and checks. (Prohibited licences are no longer issued to the regular public, but some Canadians hold them as part of a grandfathering in of prior licence holders.) Each category is primarily determined by firearm design. A simple overview: restricted firearms are some rifles and most pistols, prohibited firearms are shorter-barrelled pistols or fully automatic (or converted to another mechanism therefrom), and non-restricted firearms are anything else meeting the legal definition of a firearm, typically meaning typical hunting rifles and shotguns.
That’s a simplified version, but that’s the system.
In practice, as my requested documents confirmed, firearm classification in Canada is an opaque and byzantine nightmare. A messy plethora of firearms which meet the functional criteria for being non-restricted, subject to the least stringent oversight and controls, are prescribed by regulation as either restricted or prohibited, and therefore subject to more controls or outright banned. Since functional differences are accounted for by law and did not apply in these cases, the deviations must have another explanation.
In short, politics.
Take the 2020 Nova Scotia attacks. Despite the unlicensed murderer smuggling his firearms from the United States, the Liberals took the opportunity to issue an executive Order-in-Council that banned a bunch of legally owned Canadian guns mostly because it was an easy wedge for the next election. The facts of the case were irrelevant, as was the fact that the banned firearms were responsible for a minuscule fraction of Canadian homicides. The government did not even bother writing the ban by how the firearms functioned, which while unhelpful from a homicide-reduction perspective, would have at least been a coherent position. The order, among other things, simply identified a few well-known guns by name and banned those.
This is where the concept of “variants” matters. When a firearm is designated by regulation as restricted or prohibited, the designation includes all variants of the firearm, which then receive the same classification. This makes sense. Ridiculous as classifying firearms by name over function already is, it would be yet more ridiculous if a mere renaming by a manufacturer, for instance, was sufficient to evade a legal classification.
Most ridiculous of all is that the public does not and cannot know what constitutes a “variant.” The Firearms Act does not define it. The Canadian government does not define it. Nor do its agencies, even the one responsible for determining variants: the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
The Mossberg Blaze 47 saga is illustrative of this problem. It is uncontroversial to assume that a precise mechanical copy of an original Russian AK-47 with a different name and slight design changes is still an AK-47. But when Mossberg, the manufacturer, slapped a plastic frame bearing some resemblance to Kalashnikov’s famous design on its Blaze rifle — a cheap, non-restricted, rimfire rifle suitable for, at worst, a particularly aggressive colony of rabbits — that new gun, dubbed the Blaze 47, somehow transformed from an unthreatening small-game rifle to a dangerous AK-47 variant prohibited under Former Prohibited Weapons Order No. 13.
These head-scratching decisions have confused firearm owners and manufacturers, who wasted decades trying to understand how the government decides to classify their guns. It all seemed very random.
Surprise! It is!
I spent 514 days waiting for a response to an Access to Information Request filed with the RCMP (a downright civilized timeframe by federal government standards). The half-answered request was revealing, but only in its utter uselessness.
The most important takeaway from the internal documents received is that there’s no functional definition of a variant at all. It wasn’t that the RCMP refused to release a definition; a definition just never existed. Instead, a complex series of “imprecise” and “equivocal” information is assessed against a series of categories to provide an answer to a binary question: is a firearm a variant?
Some of these categories are reasonable. Is a firearm a close copy of a prohibited or restricted firearm? Does it have other close design similarities that would indicate it is derived from the same family? Those types of questions are within the scope of our normal understanding of a variant: a subtype of another firearm, not a distinct one.
If the firearm is named in law as being a variant of another firearm, it is a variant. The May 2020 Order-in-Council listed hundreds of firearms as AR-10 or AR-15 variants. Therefore — pending the outcome of ongoing litigation — they are AR-10 or AR-15 variants, whether this is true or not. The RCMP cannot override the cabinet or the courts.
When left to their own devices, the RCMP consider the purpose of the firearm. For instance, they cite the AKAT 22LR training rifle, used to train Romanian soldiers on the prohibited AK-47 platform, as an example. A training rifle can be assumed to emulate the platform it was designed to train for. Similarly, the released document lists firearms deriving “more than 50% from the same family” as being variants out of practicality, as a firearm cannot be a cumulative variant of more than one family. It goes on to immediately smudge the closest thing we have to a clear definition in the very next sentence by assuring us “...there is no minimum degree of lineage required for one firearm to be a variant of another.” Oh. Okay.
Interchangeable parts further muddy the waters. Interchangeability can be indicative of a variant. Or not. It is listed as a consideration, but with the imprecise definition: an “indication” of a relationship.
Then it gets wild.
According to the obtained internal document, firearm advertising, descriptions offered by the manufacturer, and articles by the firearm press, or even perception by the general public, contribute to whether one firearm is considered a variant of another. An advertisement, or a press article, that links a firearm to a prohibited firearm can contribute to the “discovery” of a new variant.
This is nonsense. Want to import a gun that functions or looks nothing like a prohibited firearm, but is poorly advertised? May the odds be ever in your favour. A prominent firearm writer indicated to me that they self-censor to avoid contributing to a prohibition justified on these measly grounds.
Our list continues with “historical significance.” If a firearm is “linked to the original in academic journals … associated with important historical events,” this may contribute to a prohibition. That has nothing to do with whether a gun is a copy (remember, copies are a separate category). The Dreyse needle rifle and Chassepot were decidedly not variants of each other, but my fellow history majors will remember their significant historical linkages in the Franco-Prussian War.
The final category considered is appearance and uniqueness. There was so much wrong with the description of this category that, when I wrote my original breakdown, I could hardly formulate the words. The RCMP says that “[t]here is no need for an independently-designed firearm to look like any other…” and that similarity in appearance “without explanation to the contrary” therefore “implies some connection.”
The irrelevance of appearance aside, this text is simply wrong. Firearm designs evolve, and sometimes arrive at a similar place through coincidence, economics, or merely because a particular aesthetic is popular. The Mosin-Nagant and Mauser G98 may appear similar: bolt-action rifles with wooden stocks and a similar silhouette. Hardly unique. Yet these are entirely different firearms and could never reasonably be considered variants.
You may remember that this is a holistic assessment based on all these categories and question whether any of the above alone could be decisive. Let’s revisit our Blaze 47: mechanically a copy of a non-restricted firearm but with an unfortunate piece of plastic that makes it look enough like an AK-47 to make it one in the eyes of the law, despite sharing absolutely none of the same internal components and firing completely different ammunition. The RCMP-provided table goes further: if that same plastic frame was added to a non-restricted Mossberg Blaze afterwards by a third party or the rifle’s owner, the rifle would remain non-restricted despite now being in all material ways and appearance the exact same gun as the prohibited Blaze 47.
Not only is there no single formula provided, but even the loose logic we are given is tenuous. Two guns could match in most categories and not be variants; two guns could match in a couple of categories and be variants.
Some argue this is a clue that variant classifications by the RCMP are as political and agenda driven as those by cabinet. There is undoubtedly some truth to that, but the complete truth is worse: it is random.
Sure, the main gripe of firearm owners and some gun control advocates is rightly that we classify by name over function at all. And yes, even within this flawed system most variants are roughly classified as we might expect. But a fair few aren’t, and the lack of transparency in the process means that variant classification often looks like throwing randomly weighted dice.
An owner, having read these internal rules, is nowhere closer to understanding a potential classification. RCMP technicians working in good faith to follow the rules to the letter could easily make different decisions than their colleagues. A decision impacting the livelihoods of licensed Canadians importing, selling, or purchasing a legal consumer product can be justified based on a whim. The morning coffee of an RCMP technician, or the magazine he reads with it, can determine whether a citizen will lose their property or spend years in court.
Government and the RCMP could improve clarity by defining variants in law, or just by creating an authoritative formula. That’s unlikely. Most administrative organizations prefer as much latitude as possible, even when it comes at the expense of the public they serve.
Given the continual failure of the federal government to correct the issue, we might assume the system is working as the government intends. The dysfunction becomes the purpose. The leeway offered to the regulator to achieve the outcomes it wants is paramount; fairness, predictability, and proper administrative procedure be damned.
Tim Thurley specializes in firearm policy, having earned a Master of Science from Leiden University with his analysis of the long-gun registry’s lack of effect on Canadian homicide rates. He lives in the Northwest Territories, where he files regular Access to Information requests on firearm issues and anything else of interest.
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