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Gun School

How many combat shotguns are there under my bed? Thanks to new laws, none of your beeswax.

By Kai Nagata 30 May 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Kai Nagata is a freelance writer and videographer based in Vancouver, and a regular contributor to The Tyee. His previous articles are here.

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The author as he appears on his restricted firearms license.

"Six, seven, eight, nine... where's number 10? Jesus Christ." Tony, our bearded Italian-Canadian instructor, stomps past us and out the door. Through the mangled venetian blinds, we see him yelling across the parking lot. He stomps back inside. "Smoking in his car. Unreal."

Colin, early 50s, thinning hair, in red lumberjack flannel, wanders in with glazed eyes. He's been baked for two days. "Gosh, sorry fellas. I uh... didn't... well, sorry." He's holding a 1-litre fruit smoothie. Tony is on the other side of the room, holding the door to the range open. "Come on guys, let's go!" On the bench is a row of shiny black handguns, waiting for us.

Welcome to gun school.

What's your name and why do you want a firearms license?

That's the first question they ask at the Canadian Firearms Academy ("Academy" is somewhat grandiose for a two-room rental unit in a central Surrey strip mall, but hey, that's what it says on the printout taped to the door). Why are we here?

One guy has a police officer son, and would like to bond more as a family.

Another guy has an uncontrollable jitter and a strong desire to go hunting.

Another guy, having stepped out of a brand-new black BMW, expresses in precise, Korean-accented English his interest in target practice.

Another guy (yes, it's all guys) says from under his white toothbrush moustache: "My name is Bob. Because it's my right!"

My own reasons are a blend of the above. Certainly I want to harvest my own meat. I'd rather shoot an animal and watch it die on the ground than eat drive-thru burgers. Of course it's fun to shoot targets, too. But keep asking and you might get an answer like Bob's. It's my right. Why shouldn't I? Luckily, there's never been a better time to be a Canadian gun owner.

Warning shots

A curious exchange took place in a House of Commons committee hearing in February. Justice Minister Rob Nicholson was answering questions about Bill C-26, his citizen's arrest bill (now in the final stages of adoption). Brian Jean, the Tory MP for Fort McMurray-Athabaska, wanted to know if the minister thought firing warning shots to be an acceptable Canadian practice: "People have used firearms, shot in the air or shot around the people. Would that be a reasonable use of defence in the circumstances?" Nicholson replied "I think it is."

Brian Jean was simply voicing the concerns of some of his rural constituents, who apparently are plagued by people trying to steal their recreational vehicles. Believe me, as a cyclist in Vancouver, I can relate. I'm paranoid about thieves trying to cut my lock. So under Bill C-26, If I catch somebody in the act, can I pop off a couple shots above or around the alleged thief, then force them to the ground at gunpoint, effectuating a citizen's arrest?

Says the minister: "I mean, every case is decided on its own but the individual who -- as people are for instance coming onto their property, stealing or destroying or trying to take possession of their property -- the individual who wields, shows a firearm, again, it's what is reasonable under the circumstances." That strikes me as pretty rock-solid. Canadians are adults, after all. Gun owners in particular are a conscientious bunch.

Still, watching Colin on the range in Surrey, I'm a little concerned. He has a nasty habit of holding a pistol flat in front of his face to examine it. You know, pointing it toward the head of the student to his left. During loading exercises, his finger keeps wandering inside the trigger guard, despite repeated warnings from the instructors. When a "cease-fire" is called, he puts the Beretta down and walks away, leaving the clip in the gun and a round in the chamber. Fortunately it's a dummy round, and the firing pin has been taken out of the gun for training.

We break for lunch. Everyone heads to the Hook & Ladder Neighbourhood Pub, nestled above a ravine at the end of the strip mall. "Guys, do not drink," warns Tony's daughter, one of our instructors. "My dad is very serious about this. Not even one." We sigh. It's a tough directive to follow. At noon the pub is packed, and everyone else appears to be several pints deep. However, as responsible firearms students, we order coffee instead.


When we were going around the circle introducing ourselves at the beginning of the weekend, I got in trouble for using a bad word. (No, not a cuss-word. Tony's nickname for me is "Tabernak," thanks to my Quebec driver's license.) I used the term "weapon," as in, "I figure if I'm getting my basic gun license I might as well be familiar with restricted weapons." Tony barked: "These are not weapons!"

Fair enough. It's prohibited under Canadian law to hunt with a handgun. Unless you're a cop, a game warden or an armoured car guard, the only legal purpose of owning a handgun is to go to a handgun range and shoot targets. So wait, why are we being tested on our ability to identify hollow-point rounds?

From Wikipedia: "In essence, the hollow-point bullet has two interrelated purposes: to increase its size once within the target, thus maximizing tissue damage and blood loss or shock; and to remain inside the target, thereby transferring all of its kinetic energy to that target." One of the instructors anticipates the question. "Look, some of these rounds you're learning about have anti-personnel applications. But you're going to be using them on paper targets. End of story."

Certainly Canada's restricted-firearms laws are designed to keep things that way. You have to get a transport permit for each handgun just to take it to the range and back. At home, it's supposed to be locked up, far away from any compatible ammunition. Still, a handgun is hardly the most lethal thing you can keep at your house.

The registry

For under $200, you can buy a Russian SKS, the precursor to the AK-47 assault rifle. They fire the same gigantic bullet, but the SKS is semi-automatic, meaning one shot every time you squeeze the trigger. It also comes fitted with a bayonet. You can take that off, though. In fact, you can buy all sorts of after-market kits for the SKS that let you mount scopes, red-dot sights, bipods, whatever. The one thing you can't buy, legally, is a clip holding more than five bullets.

I'm more of a 12-gauge guy, myself. You can load six shells in a Benelli tactical shotgun -- a favourite "urban operations" tool of the U.S. Marine Corps. With a cut-down barrel and a folding stock, you can bring it down to two feet, two inches, and still have it classified as a non-restricted firearm. Same as the SKS. They're both "long-guns," which means no restricted status, and no registry.

Or the Mossberg 500 Chainsaw, a device clearly designed to be fired from the hip. Eschewing the idea of a shoulder rest entirely, the Chainsaw appears more popular online with zombie hunters than pheasant hunters. It too is a "long-gun," which means no restricted status, and no registry.

Thanks to the Conservative government, now being destroyed are all records of Canada's current stock of tactical pump-actions and bayonet-mounted SKS assault rifles, along with every high-powered hunting rifle and automatic shotgun -- more than seven million long-guns in all. My future purchases will also be a mystery, even to police. I can carry them around in a car without a permit. If they're stolen, it's up to me to report the theft. And if I choose to sell them, I don't have to check the buyer's gun license. To quote one Tory MP when the new rules came into effect, "Free at last! Free at last!"

Back in Surrey, we're writing our second test, the one that will allow us to possess restricted firearms (the ones the cops still know about). I look up at the clock. I realize it's not a clock; it's a round, metallic Glock sign. Time to get shootin'. I look back at my test. It all seems a bit easy. "A .357 Magnum round is dangerous at a distance of 1.5 km. True or False?" "Before firing, a responsible gun user should A) Be sure of the target; B) Be sure of the area behind the target; C) Adopt a safe stance; D) All of the above."

I double check my answers and hand the test in. I sit and wait. Others finish and look around the room. Colin sits in deep concentration, his eyes glassy, staring at his paper. Slowly, slowly, he colours in an answer bubble and moves to the next. Tony is antsy. The second period of the hockey game just started over at the Hook & Ladder.

Colin finishes. The tests are graded on the spot. He passes. I pass. We all pass. "Congratulations!" says Tony. "Now get out of here!" Is there a slight swagger as we stride across the parking lot? Have our gaits changed since yesterday? Maybe it's my imagination.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Food

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