Freedom from gun terror: why understanding American history can help keep Canadians sane

An American militia in 1773 … before they were well regulated and illustrating why they needed to be. Most militia units, said Gen. George Washington, were “totally unacquainted with every kind of military skill.” Below: President Washington; President Thomas Jefferson.

One of the effects of the horrific tragedy at Sandy Hook last year is that – slowly, slowly, ever so slowly – gun control is coming to the U.S.A.

The sheer lunacy of the substantial cohort of firearms-proliferation advocates and their politically influential organizations in the United States after the massacre of six-year-olds on the anniversary of the death of George Washington has effectively driven forward increasingly mainstream efforts to impose some sanity and order on gun sales within our large and noisy neighbor’s borders.

One useful aspect of this harsh debate has been the exposure of a popular misreading of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, that “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.”

It is simply nonsense to suggest, as has become the conventional wisdom in the circles that advocate gun proliferation, that the intention of the Founding Fathers of the American Republic was to encourage the placement of a firearm in every household as a tool to enable the overthrow of the state should tyranny take root.

This is a preposterous and perverse – and in many cases, quite intentional – misreading of the intention of the Fathers, which is quite clear on the face of the words of the Second Amendment.

Indeed, the purpose of the Second Amendment, which took effect on Dec. 15, 1791, with the other nine amendments that comprise the Bill of Rights, was the preservation of the nation and its government, tyrannical or not.

That is not to say the Founders favoured tyranny, and least of the monarchial sort. But since the new United States had both powerful enemies encamped right upon its doorstep – and that would be here in Canada, my fellow citizens – and an instinctive distrust of standing armies based in the circumstances of its birth, the Fathers deemed it necessary to possess a well-regulated militia to ensure the security of their new nation. The secondary clause of the Amendment defines the mechanism for making the militia effective – principally, to ensure its swift mobilization and deployment in the event of a threat to the new country.

That aristocratic old federalist and tax-raiser George Washington, of all people, would laugh through his wooden teeth at the suggestion the new Republic needed to be populated by an armed rabble that could rise up on a moment’s notice and overthrow its government, which in the late 18th Century was made up of people some of us might dismiss in 2012 as “the 1 per cent.”

By the way, the quote frequently attributed to Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence adopted in 1776 and the third president of the Republic, to the effect that weapons in the hands of the population are “a last resort to protect themselves from tyranny in government,” is a misattribution, a fiction.

This is an important historical distinction for Canadians to understand because we hear it so often from our own weapons proliferation advocates and their Canadian gun organizations. Often, this false claim about the intentions of the Founders of the American Republic is stated as if it were required for the preservation of a free state, or even a universal human right, that ought to be, or had better be, imitated in Canada.

So it is helpful for us Canadians to know that it is a gross misreading of history, as risible on the dark side of the Medicine Line as it is here in our more peaceful Dominion.

This ludicrous claim is cynically tolerated – even encouraged – by the profoundly un-conservative and un-Canadian government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper for the contemptible reasons it has proved to be an effective wedge issue to pry votes in some areas away from the opposition and as a fund-raising tool.

This course of action was made more tempting to him, no doubt, by the fact that Canadian weapons-proliferation advocates are well organized and lobby effectively – thanks to advice and subsidies from their wealthy and experienced allies in the U.S. firearms industry and its political arm, the National Rifle Association, and advocacy from home-grown right-wing groups like the Fraser Institute.

However, for those of us who recognize the need for sanity in the face of anti-social efforts to encourage the proliferation of firearms in our country, this should be cause for hope, not despair.

Because, for all their blustering repetition of the American firearms lobby’s vicious logorrhea, advocates of gun proliferation in Canada have to know that this is simply a different country, with a different history and a different Constitution. And that is not going to change, Mr. Harper’s best efforts notwithstanding.

Our Canadian Constitutional arrangements in particular mean that restrictions on gun proliferation are not merely desirable, they are quite possible.

There is no Second Amendment here to be perversely misinterpreted by “conservative” Supreme Court jurists, and there is a Constitutional guarantee of Peace, Order and Good Government, or at least the circumstances to enable the latter. As for the frantic claims of the gun nuts that they have a Common Law right to be armed to the teeth with assault weapons, they are codswallop.

So in that sense, the wording of the U.S. Constitution and the naïve fictions used to justify its intentional misinterpretation within the United States have no relevance whatsoever in Canada beyond questions of political action.

And the political question, my friends, can be won by advocates of sane regulation and responsible measures to impose reasonable restrictions on the proliferation and nature of firearms available in Canada.

There was a certain amount of triumphalism in gun-proliferation advocacy circles – some of it seen for a time in the comments section of this blog* – after the Harper Government passed legislation eliminating the national rifle and shotgun registry and vandalizing the data already gathered under its aegis.

This was just the start, many proliferation advocates boasted, and they would be going on to achieve much more. For a moment, with Liberal leadership candidate Justin Trudeau’s craven surrender to their not-so-awesome political clout, it may have seemed to some of us as if they were right.

But that is not so. On this side of the border it is simply a question of political will. Our Constitution makes sane limits on firearms proliferation eminently achievable if we choose to exercise that will. This means organizing ourselves as effectively as the proliferation advocates, of course, but this is hardly an insurmountable task. And remember, in politics, a wedge can work more ways than one.

Indeed, the victories under Mr. Harper’s destructive rule by those who would see Canada terrorized by guns like the United States should spur us to seek solutions that are more permanent and more difficult to dismantle than mere registration.

*NOTE: The ban on comments and abuse by firearms proliferation advocates and their ilk remains in effect at this site. You “gun nuts” have the support of the cabinet and government of the land, so go peddle your rage and hysteria elsewhere.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

9 Comments on "Freedom from gun terror: why understanding American history can help keep Canadians sane"

  1. anonymous says:

    I grew up in a rural area, in the bush. My friends lived on dairy farms and corn and barley farms. They had rifles, mainly single shot .22s, in order to control, mainly, ground hogs. If you have a 20 head herd of dairy cows, a single animal breaking its leg in a ground hog hole is a significant hardship. I used to accompany my friends on ground hog hunts. They viewed these hunts as a chore, like shovelling shit out of the barns, and it was not something they enjoyed.

    My friends also grew gardens. These were serious gardens that provided substantial food for their families. Again, single shot .22s were used to dispatch animal thieves. They did not enjoy killing the animals, but they viewed it as being necessary for their own survival.

    I also remember, growing up, that it was not unusual to see bears from the kitchen window. We had a rifle on hand just in case things got out of hand. But that rifle was never fired. Respect the bears, keep the dogs in the house when the bears are around, and the bears will respect you. The bears always respected that agreement.

    What is my point? Yes, guns are necessary in some rural Canadian environments. Do we need automatic and semi-automatic guns in Canada? No, we don’t. Do the majority of farmers and hunters object to firearms control legislation? No, they don’t.

    The cynical wedge gun policies of the reformist Harperites should, and will, fail in the progressive Canada of the future.

    • Anonymous 8:01 states that guns are necessary in some rural areas and I will not dispute his point. Nevertheless, as a result it is important to note, the chances of being a victim of a gun in rural areas are certainly not reduced and in certain categories may be significantly greater. The RCMP reports that the rate of firearms homicides per capita in urban and rural parts of Canada (including suicides) are similar, although handguns are more likely to be used in urban areas while long guns (rifles and shotguns) are the weapon of choice in rural parts of Canada. The national police force quotes a study on domestic homicides involving firearms that indicates almost half occurred in rural areas even though less that a quarter of the nation’s population lives in rural areas. So your chances of dying in a domestic firearms incident are considerably enhanced in rural Canada because of the availability of these “necessary” guns. It goes without saying that most of the victims of this rural firearms violence are women. Likewise the proportion of firearms suicide is much higher in rural areas than urban, the RCMP said – 58 per cent in Northern Ontario were committed with firearms compared with 18 per cent in the city of Toronto. Where guns are available for any reason, no matter how necessary and no matter how law abiding the owners, guns will be used in homicides. http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/cfp-pcaf/res-rec/urb-eng.htm

  2. Bruce A says:

    It never fails to amaze me how selfish some gunowners are when it comes to putting restrictions on their toys and the need for more firepower. Look at the cannon Carey Price and his friend used to kill a coyote for pete’s sake. Now I don’t know who actually owns that lethal weapon (Price’s buddy apparently shot the coyote) but a scope, a tripod and a big clip? For a coyote? Jeez won’t a regular .306 do the job? Then there’s the sideway peace sign, the camouflage and the covered faces, oh they’re so bad and the coyote so dead.

    As far as selfishness goes and “vicious logorrhea” look no farther than the snarky Ben Shaprio babbling at Piers Morgan last night. The gun nuts are nothing but paranoid, narcissistic personalities that see ‘tyranny’ around every corner and under every bed. The John Bircher’s are never far away, the NRA and the wannabe National Firearms Association certainly fan the flames of the loons who gobble up it up, all in the name of ‘freedom’.

    ‘Freedom’ has become a term that has lost it’s meaning to the nuts that monopolize it’s use and interepretation.

    As far as I’m concerned there is no freedom when the truth is so blatantly ignored. People kill people but it doesn’t need to be so ‘efficient’,easily available and ‘mass marketed’. Only the cowardly and insecure want these weapons to threaten the rest of us.

    Which is the way American foreign policy is conducted.

  3. Tom in Ontario says:

    David, I realize you do not allow gun lovers to rant in response to your Alberta Diary blog. But if you did, you might get a reply like the following which was sent to a a Detroit columnist who dared suggest all guns be outlawed in the United States. (cpl is a Concealed Pistol License which as the name implies permits its holder to carry a concealed pistol in the state of Michigan.)

    “Jack, this is one of the worst fact free and in my opinion facetious articles i’ve ever read. I along with many on here am a legal gun owner ,cpl holder and tax paying citizen. You need to get you’re facts straight and maybe even practice some of you’re fifth amendment before u go calling all of us nazis. If u outlaw guns only outlaws will have guns. If you weren’t an anti gun prick u would understand scott beaton was saying that some teachers, and school admin should be trained and allowed to cary in school apon acquiring a cpl at they’re discression not give some 5 year old a glock u moron. I agree with previous comment that metro times should be ashamed to have someone as ignorant and arrogant as you wrighting under they’re banner.”

  4. Kimpton says:

    T’was ever the case …

    A couple of your phrases particularly caught my eye David.
    “sane regulation and responsible measures to impose reasonable restrictions”
    “a question of political will”
    The sane, aware and progressive among us have been wishing for these for some time now. I dare say that since the Regan/Thatcher/Mulroney era all; sanity, responsibility and perseverance have been absent from the larger political stage.

  5. anonymous says:

    Albertans channel the tea party republicans of the Harper government and the rest of Canada is supposed to accept it. Fact is, most Canadians despise the Alberta logic of corporate rape.

  6. fubar says:

    While I applaud your enthusiasm in defence of you opinion (RE: US second amendment), you are mistaken. If you believe in the judiciary, then you will have to acknowledge the ruling(s) of the Supreme Court – and in the US the SCOTUS has most consistently not sided with you on this one. They have almost exclusively sided with the individual’s right to bear arms (over local attempts to restrict). That is their right, they are not us. Until their citizenry rise up for constitutional change, this is not likely to change.

    As for us – of course we are different than the US. Different history, different culture, different social contract. And of course the abolition of the longarm registry was a political wedge issue (mostly) – you are not likely to see any more rollbacks of the firearms act / regulations by any party. Forget about the gun nutz who advocate for ‘concealed carry’, high-capacity magazines, and easing of restricted firearms regulations – not gonna happen. They are undisciplined children playing with matches. The real hazard from living next to the US is the illegal importation and distribution of un-registered firearms, and accessories (of all types).

    I believe our present firearms legislation is adequate (not to say in cannot be improved). More good though could be accrued to Canadians by strengthening / improving our health and education systems.

  7. ABobserver says:

    Fubar is correct in stating that SCOTUS has ruled on the issue, and, if one believes in the justice system, it is one that stands.

    Let`s not forget, many of us on the right wing of the political spectrum may disagree with what we see as bad decisions. Regardless, if we are, and the US is, a nation of laws, then we need to respect those. If we want changes, we need to lobby governments or parties for those changes.

    That was what caused the then Bill C-68 to be introduced by the Liberals, and the registration portion of long guns reversed by the Conservatives. The Supreme Court of Canada had ruled that C-68 was constitutional. We as firearm owners did not like that decision, but is was the law of the land.

    Making laws based on emotions, which always arise when things like Newtown or the Montreal massacre occur, usually make for over-reactive and bad laws. Common sense provisions in Canadian law such as screening of individuals as to WHO can own a gun, the training courses required, and the safe storage aspects have broad (but not universal) support from firearm owners. Similar requirements in the US, I suspect, would also have broad support, the NRA not withstanding.

  8. jerrymacgp says:

    The big issue in the US is that the way the courts have interpreted the 2nd Amendment, and the way the gun lobby (including the NRA) have pushed politicians, is to the viewpoint that even reasonable limitations on the “right to bear arms” are unconstitutional, and therefore unenforceable. For example, it is reasonable to ensure sport hunters (both rural and urban), farmers and ranchers have the right to purchase, possess and carry (in appropriate settings) hunting rifles and shotguns. It is not reasonable to allow nutbars to purchase, possess and carry military assault rifles that are designed and intended to kill people, not game. Here in Canada, we are able to draw those distinctions, although some of the debate tends to drift over from south of the border. In the US, the Supreme Court has made it virtually impossible to draw those distinctions.

    An author of whom I am a big fan, Robert J. Sawyer, had a character in one of his novels shot & wounded by a wannabe assassin while visiting New York City. The victim later asked what would happen to the shooter; he was told that he had been arrested and charged, but that he would need to be assessed for mental illness to see if he was fit to stand trial. He said something like (paraphrasing here), “would it not make more sense to make that determination before allowing him to own a firearm?”. Here in Canada, we are able to make some efforts towards doing that, although I personally feel those efforts are insufficient. In the US, they can’t with any real efficacy.

    The only solutions I see are to repeal the 2nd Amendment, which will never happen in our lifetimes; or to further amend it with language similar to that which we find in our own Charter of Rights & Freedoms, which permits such “reasonable limits as can be demonstrably justified in a free & democratic society”.

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