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Gun Control: Is It Possible, Ever?

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AK-47-rifleOn the grounds of the Fairfield Sportsmen’s Association, about 35 km northwest of Cincinnati, Larry Rowe looked wistfully at his Colt .45 semi-automatic pistol. With 2,400 members, Fairfield is the second-largest gun club in the United States, and usually the complex would resound with the din of shotgun fire from skeet- and trapshooters and rifle and pistol fire from target shooters.

That morning, however, an unaccustomed silence hovered over the firing ranges, which lay under several feet of water due to flooding from the adjacent Miami River. The economics looked horrible. Rowe, a competitive pistol shooter and president of the Ohio Rifle and Pistol Association, took the temporary setback in stride. But with firearms-related deaths increasing and gun-control groups calling for stricter laws, he talked about his concerns that the government would one day silence his guns – permanently. “The right to own guns is one of the freedoms that this country was founded on,” said Rowe, 60, a retired executive of a supermarket chain and father of four. “If you start whittling away at these freedoms, then you’re going to see an erosion of so many other things.”

Rowe is one of three million Americans – including President George Bush – who belong to the National Rifle Association (NRA), the largest U.S. pro-gun lobby. The right of citizens to own guns is based on the 198-year-old Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reads, “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Pro-gun lobbies say that the amendment prohibits government control over firearms, while gun-control advocates argue that it merely relates to the right of states to maintain militias. However, the current debate between pro- and anti-gun forces is not so much over who should be allowed to have firearms but what types of guns should be regulated – or even banned. That debate was heightened in January when a deranged gunman in California – wielding a Chinese-made version of an AK-47 semi-automatic assault rifle – killed five schoolchildren and wounded 30 other people.

Unlike Canadians, most Americans have easy access to firearms. An estimated 70 million Americans own 140 million rifles and 60 million handguns. Federal law does not require gun registration, and the only people excluded from ownership are convicted felons, known narcotics users, the mentally incompetent and illegal aliens. Only fully automatic weapons and sawed-off rifles and shotguns require a federal licence. And currently only 23 states have a waiting period to acquire a gun. In May, however, California became the first state to ban semi-automatic assault rifles – a decision that several other states are now considering.

For the NRA, the issue is not gun control but criminals. In 1987, there were 17,859 homicides in the United States, 59 per cent involving firearms. Preliminary 1988 statistics show a three-per-cent rise in murders. Gun-control advocates cite such alarming numbers to win support for tighter restrictions, especially on handguns. But the NRA counters with its famous slogan “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Said Rowe: “Gun control would do nothing but restrict law-abiding citizens.”

Earlier this year, Bush unveiled a $1.2 billion (U.S.) anti-crime package to build more prisons, hire more law enforcement officers and stiffen penalties for gun-related crimes. However, as a result of the outrage over the California tragedy, Bush also called for a ban on ammunition clips that hold more than 15 rounds. That proposal drew sharp criticism from the NRA. But Rowe privately conceded, “I don’t know of any person who needs a large-capacity magazine.”

Despite growing sentiment for more controls, America’s traditional attachment to guns shows few signs of weakening. In fact, because of increasing crime, surveys show that more Americans than ever are buying handguns for self-protection. Rowe, who says that he owns “50 or 60” guns, keeps one loaded handgun in his sock drawer at home. But he acknowledges that “guns are not for everybody,” adding that he “would not be opposed” to mandatory, periodic testing of a gun owner’s ability to handle firearms. “When I get to the point when I’m too old and feeble, I shouldn’t have a gun,” said Rowe. However, referring to Americans’ inalienable right to bear arms, he added, “The problem is, how are you going to get it away from me?”

It is a telling fact that, despite strict government controls on guns and gun owners in Canada, no federal or provincial officials contacted could estimate the number of privately held firearms in the country. Some experts speculate that the figures have never been compiled because there is too little public concern to warrant it. At the same time, the 20,000 – member Shooting Federation of Canada – the governing body for competitive shooting in the country and the closest thing to the powerful U.S. pro-gun lobby, the National Rifle Association – supports tight restrictions on firearms. Said Donald Hinchley, the president of the federation as well as of the 6,500-member Ontario Handgun Association: “Unlike some people in the NRA who wrap themselves in the flag and don’t want to see any form of control, we tend to take a more moderate approach.” The 47-year-old history and shop teacher at suburban Toronto’s Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute added: “We understand that there need to be controls over certain types of firearms.”

There has been some form of handgun control in Canada for nearly 100 years. And in 1978, new federal legislation forced all potential gun owners to apply for a Firearms Acquisition Certificate – about 130,000 of which are issued by police each year. Those who are at least 16 and have no criminal record, history of mental disorder or drug or alcohol abuse can acquire rifles and shotguns with an FAC. But because the $10 – certificate is valid for five years and allows multiple purchases, it does not provide an accurate account of the number of guns in circulation. Canadians who are at least 18 and want to buy restricted firearms – including all handguns and most semi-automatic rifles – require an additional Firearm Registration Certificate from the RCMP – as well as permits to use, carry or transport the guns. In most cases, a buyer of a restricted firearm must be a member of a provincially approved gun club and pass a firearms safety course. Automatic weapons and sawed – off rifles and shotguns are strictly prohibited.

Still, some gun-control advocates – concerned over accidents and the criminal misuse of firearms – say that even stricter restrictions are needed. But Hinchley, for one, says: “We don’t need any further laws. We need the enforcement of the existing laws.”

Hinchley added that Canada is unlikely to ever become a nation of heavily armed citizens. As the Maclean’s – Decima poll showed, only three per cent of Canadian respondents said that they own a handgun, compared to 24 per cent of Americans. “There are vast cultural differences between Canada and the United States,” said Hinchley. “We didn’t have their tradition of a violent revolution to overthrow the oppressors, the Motherland. As well, we didn’t have that seeming lawlessness of the American West.” Hinchley’s restricted weapons permit specifies that he can use his guns only for target shooting and that he has to keep the firearms in a locked case when he is taking them from his home to the firing range – by the most direct route. He also needs separate permits to cross provincial borders with his guns or to bring firearms to any place other than a gun club. A permit violation is punishable by two years’ imprisonment.

Such controls may partially account for a lower rate of gun-related deaths in Canada than in the United States. According to a 1988 study, the risk of being killed by a gun is almost five times as high in Seattle, Wash. – where controls are negligible – as in Vancouver, 225 km north. Comparing homicide rates from 1980 through 1986 in the two cities – which are similars economically, demographically and geographically – Canadian and U.S. researchers reported 139 gun-related deaths in Seattle and 25 in Vancouver. They attributed the significant difference to tighter gun controls in Canada.

Still, some Canadians say they are alarmed that fully 31 per cent of the 642 homicides in Canada in 1987 involved firearms – mostly rifles and shotguns. Darryl Davies, a criminologist with the Ottawa-based Canadian Criminal Justice Association, recently called for an almost total ban on privately owned guns. Davies says that he would exempt only natives who can prove that their livelihoods depend on using firearms to hunt. “It is too late to turn back the clock in the United States,” said Davies, who pointed out that about 50 per cent of all U.S. households have at least one gun. But he added, “In Canada we still have some hope if we can take guns out of the hands of private citizens.”

Indeed, at a meeting in Charlottetown in June, provincial justice ministers – supported by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police – recommended that Parliament amend the Criminal Code to prohibit the importation, sale and ownership of military assault weapons. Those include the controversial AK-47 semi-automatic rifle – which can be easily converted to allow long bursts with one squeeze of the trigger. As an advocate of responsible gun ownership, Hinchley says that such firearms should merely be placed on the restricted list. However, with a growing lobby against the deadly assault rifles, it appears that – in keeping with Canadian tradition – concern for the safety of the majority will take precedence over the rights of the gun-owning minority.

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