Grandmother. General manager. Gun goddess — on Twitter, anyway.Meet Tracey Wilson, the Orléans chairwoman of the board of the recently formed Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights. Her message is simple: Gun-owners are your neighbours, law-abiding hunters and sport-shooters. They’re not, as she puts it, pot-bellied guys drinking beer and blasting shotguns from four-wheelers, so legislating them does nothing to combat crime.
The engaging Wilson — who manages a law firm, shoots competitively and hunts her own meat — borrows the language of social justice activists when talking about the need to “reduce stigma” and battle “stereotypes.”
“It’s about time that we came out of the closet,” Wilson said, pointing to what she estimates are 2.5 million legal gun owners in Canada.
“If we had a problem with that here, you’d know it. We don’t.”
The CCFR began operations last fall just as the Liberal government was elected with a mandate to strengthen rules that gun-control advocates say were weakened under the Conservatives.
During the election campaign, the Liberals said they would boost background checks for anyone buying restricted weapons such as handguns, reverse a move putting Cabinet — not police — in charge of deciding what firearms are restricted, and require vendors to keep track of their inventory and sales to help police.
“There’s always been a need for something a little more sophisticated, a little more media-savvy,” Wilson said. “Regardless of what government is in power, the whole attitude towards firearms ownership needs to be revamped. That’s where we come in.”
The group, which argues many Canadians have opinions about gun control without understanding current law — is making public service announcements, being interviewed by Vice Media and planning a national day of action on big-city streets.
“Firearms owners get it — so you’re preaching to the choir when you’re pounding your fist and stomping your feet and making demands about your rights,” Wilson said. “The minds and hearts you need to change are everyday people, the non-gun owning community, the politicians, the media. That’s who your target audience needs to be. Hardline action doesn’t really appeal to most of them.
“Not a softer approach by any means — we don’t back down, either — but we needed to look at a broader scope of getting the message out.”
The country’s best-known gun control advocate’s response is blunt.
“I think it’s putting lipstick on a pig — it’s still basically a pig but they (CCFR) certainly are more sophisticated and professional than some of the organizations we’ve seen in the past,” said Coalition for Gun Control president Wendy Cukier.
Gun facts by the numbers
2,026,011 – firearms licences in Canada, 2015
795,854 – registered restricted firearms in Canada
182,493 – registered prohibited firearms, which can be “grandfathered”
19,698 – licences per 100,000 population in Yukon, the highest in Canada, 2014
4,362 – licences per 100,000 population in Ontario, the lowest in Canada
2,347 – licences revoked in 2015 following “continuous eligibility screening” or by court order
688 – firearm possession licences refused for reasons including a history of violence, mental illness or drug offences
156 – firearm-related homicides in Canada in 2014, which was 24 more than the year before but translated into the second lowest rate since 1974
75% – of gun deaths are suicides
Source: RCMP Canadian Firearms Program, Statistics Canada
She argued the new group makes old arguments — ranging from the implication that there’s any right to own guns in Canada, a “uniquely American” concept rejected by our courts, to the implication that legally bought guns aren’t used in crime.
On a recent golden summer afternoon, the .22 rounds pop, pop, pop through a fluttering paper target, dust exploding in the sun against trees as far as you can see.
It smells like baking earth and gunpowder at the members-only Eastern Ontario Shooting Club just past the city’s eastern limits, billed as one of the largest in the province.
Wilson laughs at another stereotype people may have: that the home of Parliament Hill is no hotbed of firearm enthusiasts.
“Which is hilarious, because the ranges in Ottawa aren’t accepting new members because they’re packed,” she said. “There’s waiting lists. People go up to their cottages, hunt camps, Crown land. There’s a lot more firearms owners in big centres, and especially Ottawa, than they think.”
She expertly loads a .22 rifle as she makes her case in the CCFR’s new public relations campaign.
At issue are 25-round magazines that fit in the commonly-owned 10/22 Ruger rifle but are now prohibited, unless “pinned” to hold fewer bullets because they can also be used in the relatively-rare Ruger Charger pistol introduced in 2007.
There are no magazine limits for the rifle but magazines that fit handguns are prohibited devices if they hold more than 10 rounds.
“Approximately a million magazines in Canada are suddenly prohibited and 100,000 people are paper criminals,” Wilson said. “Legislation should be geared towards public safety – there hasn’t been any public safety problem.”
The CCFR spread the word about the “impending” change on Facebook last month and urged people to pepper the country’s Chief Firearms Officer with calls. “Now we have a fight on our hands,” read another post. “Are you with us?”
But according to a spokesman for the minister of public safety, the RCMP bulletin about the regulation of the magazines came out in 2013.
“This is being characterized as something new — it’s not,” said a spokesman for Ralph Goodale, whose mandate letter includes working to boost controls on handguns and assault weapons, including by repealing some elements of the previous government’s Bill C-42.
The CCFR, meanwhile, wants all magazine capacity restrictions eliminated. Among its other policies is that letting people — those trained, screened and licensed — to concealed carry is “a significant benefit to society.”
“I think I should have the right to defend myself,” Wilson explained. “It’s the equalizer if you’re attacked. I’m a single woman. I live alone with a 14-year-old child. I’m trained. I’m certified. I’m proficient with my firearm.
“How does having it in a concealed-carry holster under my shirt affect anyone else? It’s not me committing crimes — it’s criminals. And they carry them whether we want them to or not.”
The CCFR’s board of directors were among the first to sign an e-petition asking the federal government to reverse the decision to restrict the AR-15 rifle. The petition calls it “the most versatile hunting rifle in the world” and charges the decision was made purely on how it looks. (Cukier calls it a military assault weapon.)
The petition was signed by more than 25,000 people but Goodale rejected the idea in June, saying he trusted the judgement of RCMP experts about the gun, the same one used in the Newtown, Conn. mass shooting.
How you get a gun in Canada
- Firearms owners are licensed, like drivers, but only restricted and prohibited weapons have to be registered like cars and linked to their owners by a centralized database — the analogy of the RCMP;
- Would-be gun owners take the Canadian Firearms Safety Course — which usually takes a day and covers topics including safe handling, storage and transportation and gun care — before writing a multiple-choice exam and handling test;
- Those who want to own restricted firearms take an additional course and test and have to get authorizations to transport their guns;
- The RCMP says their standard for processing an application for a gun license — which includes background checks — is 45 days;
- New applications face a 28-day waiting period;
- Non-restricted firearms include “ordinary” rifles and shotguns;
- Restricted firearms, mostly non-prohibited handguns but also semi-automatic, centre-fire rifles and shotguns with barrels shorter than 470 mm, and rifles and shotguns that can be fired when their overall length has been reduced by folding, telescoping or another means to less than 660 mm;
- Prohibited firearms include handguns with a barrel that’s less than 105 mm long and those that fire .25- or .32-calibre bullets, except for a few models used by sport shooters, sawed-off rifles and shotguns and fully automatic weapons;
- Businesses and organizations that produce, sell, possess, handle, display or store guns or ammunition have to be licensed.
It was the same month the CCFR had its general meeting in Ottawa with city councillors George Darouze of Osgoode Ward and Jody Mitic of Innes Ward as guests.
Mitic — a decorated Afghanistan veteran who defended tweets about buying his-and-hers Sig Sauer pistols — signed a copy of his book, Unflinching: The Making of a Canadian Sniper, for every attendee.
Wilson won’t say how many members the CCFR have signed up but said they’ve been “overwhelmed” with interest. There is a lobbyist in their ranks but no current plan to lobby government, she said.
It’s volunteer-run and funded by memberships and donations, not cash from gun-makers, Wilson insisted, although business members include gunsmiths, firearm suppliers and training firms.
Canada has almost no gun manufacturers but there are plenty of people with commercial interests in guns and shooting sports, said gun-control advocate Cukier.
“When you see groups that are increasingly sophisticated, that is one of the questions you have to ask — where is the money coming from?” she said.
She is also skeptical that the CCFR will have any impact on the attitudes of Canadians — the majority of whom (83 per cent according to a Forum Research poll released last month) don’t own guns.
For example, the rationale for magazine size restrictions is that being able to fire repeatedly without reloading increases the potential damage a firearm can do if misused, she said.
Polls show most Canadians don’t object to having guns to hunt or target shoot, for example, but some competitive shooters act out commando-like scenarios that make bigger magazines an advantage, she said.
“I can’t see Canadians feeling gun owners are hard done by because they can’t have large capacity magazines when on the risk side we’ve seen the consequences of those firearms in the wrong hands,” Cukier said.
While guns that are smuggled — mostly from the United States — are a problem, about one-third of the handguns recovered in crime were either sold illegally, stolen or misused by the legal owner, Cukier said.
Meanwhile, there are guns currently sold in Canada that would be illegal under U.S. assault rifle bans. The number of restricted and prohibited weapons in this country has almost doubled in a decade.
“That’s partly a function of the relaxation of controls during the Conservative regime as well as relaxation of the implementation of the law,” Cukier said. “There are a number of judges who have stood up and said that we are not applying the law as rigorously as we should — that’s largely a function of the ‘Guns don’t kill people, people with guns kill’ mentality.”
So while Wilson argued that “many Canadians will express an opinion on gun control without even knowing what the current laws are,” Cukier maintains what Canadians really don’t understand are the “gaping holes” in the system.
After 1977, if someone wanted to buy a Ruger Mini-14 — the gun used in the Montreal Massacre — the gun dealer would have to record who they sold the gun to and the serial number, Cukier said.
The big green books were replaced by the much-criticized federal long-gun registry in 1995 but when it was scrapped in 2012, they didn’t make a comeback.
“You can go to a gun dealer and buy 25 Ruger Mini-14s and they don’t even have to legally write down the fact that you bought 25 Ruger Mini-14s,” Cukier said. “So there is no record at all of unrestricted firearms being sold.”
A Coalition for Gun Control poll during the election campaign showed that the vast majority of Canadians across the country wanted to track gun sales and prohibit military-style weapons, Cukier said. Nor do Canadians understand that while their country has more robust controls than most U.S. states, we lag countries in Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
“I often say my problem is not the opponents of gun control — they are vastly outnumbered by supporters of gun control,” Cukier said.
“The problem is supporters of gun control are not as passionate and engaged. So the advocates for gun control might be police, victims, physicians who deal with suicide victims, women’s groups that are dealing with women who are threatened with firearms, but the average person does not lobby politicians and donate money based on their support for gun control.”