Gun owners could learn a lot from how the Canadian military treats their firearms.
A Canadian soldier training in the US. Photo via CP
I know firearms—I spent over a decade in the Army carrying, shooting, and cleaning guns, and lived the better part of a six-month combat tour in Afghanistan within arm’s reach of a pistol, assault rifle, and probably a grenade or two. I don’t hunt or own guns personally, but many of my friends do. They are responsible and law-abiding gun owners, and I have no objection to that.
The Canadian Armed Forces has extremely strict policies for the transportation, storage, and use of firearms. Weapons and ammunition are secured in purpose-built vaults. Strict protocols for handling and transportation are enforced. Everything has a serial number—whether you’re a reservist going on a weekend exercise or a soldier deploying to war, you line up in front of the vault, sign for each gun, magazine, bolt, sling, and whatever else you need to fight under the watchful eye of a non-commissioned officer whose job is to keep track of that kit.
These protocols and controls are taken with a seriousness bordering on zealotry. Any Canadian soldier who has spent time at the Infantry School in Gagetown, New Brunswick can rhyme off a half-dozen times that the entire base shut down and people were trucked from all over the training area to look for a weapon lost in the woods by some poor soldier.
Losing controlled gear like weapons or night-vision goggles in a warzone automatically meant additional scrutiny. One time, after I fell into a well in the Panjwayi district on a night patrol and nearly drowned, my platoon went back out first thing the next morning to look for gear that I had stripped off myself in a desperate bid to stay above water (no guns lost!).
Military weapons training is deliberate, methodical, and it takes months (if not years) of practice to develop adequate skills—and I still sucked at shooting after that. Weapons are assigned based on what you need for your role—there is no picking and choosing a rifle that you like better or looks cooler. In short, the military follows the gold standard for the security, transportation, training, and seriousness about firearms—and even in that highly-controlled context accidents occur. No less than the former head of the Canadian Special Forces was found guilty of negligently discharging his weapon in Iraq.
This week, the Liberal government announced new gun control legislation—among the proposals, reinstating the requirement for a permit when transporting certain types of restricted firearms, a regulation scrubbed by the previous Harper government; enhanced background checks for people applying for a firearms license; and requiring vendors to keep detailed records of gun sales. These controls are the bare minimum—they are no more invasive than those that apply to the sale of a car, or a routine employer background check.
As I said, I don’t object to law-abiding gun ownership—but I object to the gun lobby and their allies claiming that reasonable controls on dangerous goods are somehow criminalizing gun owners. The gun lobby argues that enhanced background checks and enforced record-keeping by merchants are overly intrusive measures that infringe on the rights of gun owners. They argue that “Criminals obtain guns through criminal means,” and attempt to sway the public to believe that the proliferation and inadequate regulation of legal guns does not cause gun crime. Another common argument is that most guns used in crimes here are brought in illegally from the United States, although public data doesn’t support that theory.
Police forces and Public Safety Canada dispute this. According to authorities, crackdowns on guns at the border have resulted in a significant uptick in domestically-obtained legal guns being used in violent crimes. Canada’s largest cities report increased gun violence in recent years, and polling suggests that a wide majority of Canadians agree with stricter gun controls on handguns and assault rifles—especially in urban areas.
Don’t let the narrow interests of a vocal gun lobby confuse the issue. Stricter control over the sale, purchase, and transportation of restricted weapons is not onerous nor does it impugn the good intentions of hunters and law-abiding gun owners. If the military can discipline its management of weapons, then the rest of Canada can too.
We can take another lesson from the military as well. The military does not hand out guns based on individual preference—they are assigned based on need. Hunters don’t need assault rifles and handguns. If we want to talk about serious gun control, the best place to start is not just by enacting these controls, but by resurrecting the question of whether or not we want to ban certain types of guns outright in our cities. Toronto averaged one act of gun violence per day last year. It is time to consider once again banning assault rifles and handguns in cities—we just don’t need them.
Josh Makuch is a former infantry officer in the Canadian Armed Forces and a combat veteran of the war in Afghanistan. He is a supporter of #vetsforgunreform. You can follow him on Twitter.