When I was first asked to host a documentary about guns for VICE, I had no clue what to expect.
As a reporter and an unapologetic city girl, I only really hear about guns in a negative context i.e. when homicides and mass shootings take place. While I didn't know much about Canadian gun culture, I'll admit that I had an idea of what our gun nuts might be like. I pictured mostly older white guys, living in rural areas and hunting deer in their spare time—the fruits of which would be on display somewhere in their homes. I assumed that they would mostly lean right, politically.
But I decided to keep an open mind.
What I learned, through the process of becoming a firearms license holder, trying out several types of shooting sports, and—for the sake of comparison—joining the National Rifle Association in the US, is that Canadian gun culture is quieter and far more anal than American gun culture. And most Canadian gun owners seem to be just fine with that.
Here are a few takeaways from my journey to becoming a gun owner.
The safety course is easy AF
Before I could get to any of the fun stuff though, I had to go through gun school and pass a safety course and test that allows you to apply for a firearms license. We spent one day learning about gun safety and taking notes, which, despite having funny and charming instructors, was dry as hell. The biggest takeaway was to learn the acronyms ACTS and PROVE, (which I've since forgotten) but basically they spell out how to make sure your gun is unloaded and never pointed at anyone.
I started to get slightly concerned because unlike my classmates, mostly older Jewish men, I didn't immediately understand the difference between "bolt" and "lever action" and all the other actions. The practical part of it was more fun, although, even though the guns were marked with orange to show that they're no longer functional, I felt nervous holding them for the first time.
In the end, despite not having opened my study book, I passed the test easily.
Unless you're a criminal, licensing isn't that big a deal
At this point, I was ready to apply for my license. This much-touted step is what separates us from the US. Without successfully completing it, Canadians are not able to buy a gun, whereas down south you can walk into any shop and walk out armed. Aside from being a bit tedious to fill out, this form was really no big deal. You include a couple of references—I chose two friends—and you have to disclose whether or not you have any mental health issues or a criminal record. You also have to give them your significant other's contact info, as well as that of your exes—I am sad and alone so I didn't have to bother with this.
My license came through about seven weeks after I sent in the application.
The Americans I spoke with generally consider having to get a license an affront to their personal liberty, but on a practical level, unless you have a criminal record or something to hide, I don't see the issue.
Shooting really big guns and really small guns is overrated
The first time I went shooting, I tried out a handgun, rifle, and shotgun in the same day. I was at a range outside of Toronto where you can train for IPSC (International Practical Shooting Confederation)—a shooting sport that requires you to complete different obstacle courses, where you're judged by accuracy, power, and speed. Being a newbie, I couldn't really complete any of courses, I just sort of fumbled my way through a couple of practice rounds and hoped I didn't shoot anyone by accident. Since I'm short, I expected to enjoy the pistol most but shooting a pistol is hard! You can't rely on strength from your shoulder to support you, so there's more kickback and I found my hand was trembling a lot both before and after I fired off my rounds. Afterwards, I felt a surge of adrenalin.
Not long after, I shot a long-range rifle—a beast of a gun, that I'm told is used by snipers in the military. I hated it. It felt like a literal bomb going off, and my dread actually increased with each time I fired. By the end of our time at that range, I had moved to the back of the parking lot while other people took a turn because I could no longer stand the sound of shots being fired.
The closest I came to having an "aha" moment was when I tried cowboy action, which calls for people to dress up like a character for a Western, complete with a fake name. (Mine was Medusa.) You can only use guns with super old school designs—from the mid to late 19th Century. Right before you fire your gun at a target, you have to utter a line from a Western movie, like "We deal in lead, friend." It was completely non-competitive—there were even kids shooting—and afterwards we all had a barbecue. I had finally found my place amongst the gun people, the lone (East) Indian amongst a crew of cowboys.
The NRA is nuts
In late May, I headed to Louisville, Kentucky for the NRA convention after signing up to become an NRA member. I had never—and probably never will again—see that many guns (or old white men) in one place. There was an exhibition space the size of two large airplane hangars filled with every type of gun and gun accessory possible, even special bedside holsters. The NRA is an extremely slick operation with a tightly controlled message. Everywhere I looked, there were television screens showing various gun advocates who spoke about protecting the Second Amendment, and protecting themselves against "terrorists" and the other evils of the world. Inside one of the auditoriums, waiting for then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to speak, a gentleman beside me started showing me photos of all his guns on his phone. He assumed I was black and said it was "nice to see an African-American here for a change." When I asked why he thought there weren't many black people in the NRA, he replied: "They'll tell you that they don't have the money for it. But they have money for rims. They have money for Air Jordans." With my first racist experience under my belt, I proceeded to watch Trump get the NRA's official endorsement. Most NRA members I spoke to said Donald Trump was not their ideal choice but that they would still vote for him, because they truly believed that Hillary Clinton would take away their guns. One woman, who runs a gun school for women, asked me how I would react to being attacked if I wasn't armed. I responded that where I'm from, it's not really something that I often have to think about it.
Although a lot of Canadians I spoke with think that some of our regulations here are unnecessary—like the restrictions on certain guns or magazine capacities—they were generally in favour of common sense laws like having safety training and licensing. And all of them were extremely rigid about following the rules that we do have. I even witnessed one old guy get kicked off a range because he missed a range officer's command.
So really, Canadian gun culture kind of mimics the general stereotype of Canadians being boring and straight-laced. But in this case, I think that's something to be proud of.
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