The Calgary Gun Show is perhaps the only place in the country where the best answer to “do you have any firearms in the bag?” is “not yet.” Gunnies have made pilgrimage to this Easter weekend expo, the largest of its kind in Canada, for 53 years, and this one will post record attendance: 10,170 gun owners and enthusiasts all under one roof, there to stock up on firearms and ammo, meet their peers and, whether they know it or not, take a stand for their rights. Such as they are.
I’m there looking for Sheldon Clare, president of the National Firearms Association, Canada’s largest and most outspoken gun lobby. I find him in a hall with guns as far as the eye can see, near the NFA’s booth topped with four .22 rifles on tripods pointed at the throngs of plaid and denim streaming past. In a tweed jacket and leather loafers, with a chest pocket stuffed with multicoloured pens, he’s the second-most distinguishable character in the room, after the lady covered head-to-toe in competition shooter badges (and not much else).
As gun advocates go, Clare is the anti-Charlton Heston. He’s a historian and English teacher at the liberal arts College of New Calledonia in his hometown of Prince George, BC. His voice is nasally. His eyes squint through rectangular glasses. He has the short blunt bangs of a self-inflicted haircut. Yes, Sheldon Clare is a poindexter, but a pugnacious one who will correct every “gun-grabber” term that unwittingly tumbles out my mouth. It’s not a weapon, it’s a firearm. Not an assault rifle, a modern sporting gun. Not gun crimes—just crimes. These “emotional, knee-jerk” terms that have demonized law-abiding Canadians for 40 years are to be shot on sight.
“But my father? He hasn’t touched a firearm since he was a small boy, when he accidentally shot and nearly killed his friend while playing with Grandpa’s gun.”
Clare can smell it on me: I’ve never fired a gun. Although I grew up in rural Northern Alberta, mine was perhaps the only house on the block without a rifle. My grandfather was a skilled hunter, sometimes skipping a day’s pay to bring home a duck that came nowhere near feeding the family of ten.
But my father? He hasn’t touched a firearm since he was a small boy, when he accidentally shot and nearly killed his friend while playing with Grandpa’s gun. So we were raised to fear firearms. While friends obtained hunting licenses and joined their dads at the shooting range, only billiards were shot for father-son bonding. Eventually I settled in a city, where guns are more or less treated as menaces—a generalization that I’m comfortable with. Sheldon Clare wants to fix that.
“There are many reasons for a person to own firearms,” Clare told me, “from competitive, to target shooting, to collecting, to defence, to using them at work, or just because you want ’em.”
Buried in there, Clare has said something transgressive by Canadian standards. Guns, for the average Canuck consumer, are for sport and hobby, not defence. Shooting an unarmed person—even as they smash and crawl through your window—can land you a murder charge, according to Eric Gottardi of the Canadian Bar Association. So imagine Gottardi’s surprise—and Clare’s delight—when last spring Stephen Harper told a room of Saskatchewanians that rural Canadians needed guns for “personal security.”
Like a doe in late fall, gun issues come out of the woods every federal election season and into the party crossfires to feed their respective bases. Only this cycle, three terms and nine years into Harper’s uninterrupted Conservative Prime Ministership, the tone is different. “In the past, Liberals and NDP had often had very strong gun control advocates, going back to the 1960s and 1970s,” says Blake Brown, author of Arming and Disarming: A History of Gun Control in Canada. “Now it’s really become a toxic issue, which has cleared the decks for Conservatives to keep pushing.”
The left is wary of alienating rural voters. The right is increasingly adamant that firearm possession is, well, a right—as Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney pronounced last year to an Ontario gun club—despite it being neither “constitutionally enshrined” nor “technically true,” as Blake explains. The reason is simple: the two million or so registered gun owners across the country form a considerable voter base. (It might be more than three times that size if you believe the NFA’s number-crunching, which is partly based on the common sense that people within a subculture inherently distrustful of the state simply won’t admit to a Statistics Canada agent that they own guns nor how many.)
Clare recognizes the political pandering, but he also feels a positive cultural and political shift in his bones. For too long, he says, the Tories had taken gun owners for granted, ignoring them as a voting block because, well, where else were they going to go?
To the Liberals, apparently, who’ve opened their doors to the National Firearms Association recently for discussions, a move calculated to open the door out west, where the most gun-owners per capita live, along with a lingering resentment from the long gun registry fiasco in 1995. Jean Chrétien, an arrant gun-control advocate, thought the attempt to log every last firearm—every rifle and every shotgun under every name—would be the last major milestone in gun legislation. He was so wrong. Gun owners hated the paperwork obstacles to spontaneous hunting and range outings, while the rest of Canadians just hated the price.
Running nearly a $1 billion over-budget—500 times the original $2 million estimate—the long gun registry has became a shorthand for bloated government. More subtly though, after a century of near-constant tightening, it sparked the slow loosening of gun laws.
“When you look around a room like this,” Clare tells me, panning the hall, “what you’re seeing are some of the best people in the country, in terms of their patriotism and dedication to Canada.” That, and lots of guns.
Clare shows me the kinds of hunting rifles his mother and father introduced him to at age 11, a wood-handled Smith and Wesson like the one that became his first collectors piece, and a service machine gun that he dreamed of taking to the Full-Auto Show, the gunny version of aerobatics, where shooters let loose in a Southern Alberta field, filling it with deafening bangs and pillows of smoke. “When I was 18, I saved $1,275 to buy a Vickers gun,” he says, petting the hulking green barrel that required six First World War soldiers to man it. “I put my money down and was told they’d just changed the law and I’d missed the deadline by six months. I was furious, and I’ve been an advocate for changing gun laws ever since.”
The 53-year-old was born at a turning point. Since the early 1900s, the only restrictions on the books in Canada were to keep guns away from the already marginalized—Aboriginal People, Irish immigrants, French Canadians, according to Arming and Disarming. Gradually, gun laws grew to limit the purchasing and carrying of pistols and, by the 1930s, would include the handgun registry that exists today.
But following the Second World War, a renewed interest in hunting coupled with growing gun ownership led to a perceived spike of injuries and suicides, which turned the attention of lawmakers to all firearms and all firearm owners. By the late ’60s, gun control wasn’t just a fringe issue anymore. With gun violence growing in the United States and a rash of Canadian school shootings in the 1970s, gun control advocates became increasingly vocal, and could be found in the House of Parliament under every party banner.
At the same time, Canada was in the midst of an identity crisis. Perched above the gun-happy USA, advocates and lawmakers here often determined what the country was based on by what it definitely wasn’t—a nation of gun nuts. In 1978, a new bill enshrined, amongst other things, safety storage laws and expanded police seizure powers. It also inspired several gun groups to amalgamate into the National Firearms Association and what they hoped would become Canada’s version of the NRA. (Clare didn’t mail in his membership until 1986, at 24, when the organization reformed following a few dormant years.)
Then, in 1989, after the Montreal Massacre left 14 women dead at École Polytechnique, everything changed. Gun control truly became a national conversation. A new firearms bill, championed by justice cabinet and future prime minister Kim Campbell, included provisions about screening potential buyers and gun and ammo storage that turned the gun lobby against the Conservatives. It would be decades before the party would regain the NFA’s trust—a trust the current government is once again lobbying for, in the form of Bill C-42.
Perched above the gun-happy USA, advocates and lawmakers here often determined what [Canada] was based on by what it definitely wasn’t—a nation of gun nuts.
The so-called Common Sense Firearms Licensing Act was first scheduled for debate on October 22, the day Michael Zehaf-Bibeau charged the House of Commons with a lever-action hunting rifle—irony in the cruelest sense of the word. History might have predicted that such an event would call for stricter gun control, but that’s not what happened. The bill quietly disappeared, slipping from the agenda and public discourse, before reemerging out of nowhere in March.
If passed, the bill would ease some gun-owner grievances by merging two types of licences (one to acquire a gun, the other to own and use it), and allowing a grace period between relicensing and some wiggle room for handgun owners transporting the firearm between their homes and clubs. It would also place oversight on provincial chief firearms officers and effectively remove the RCMP’s independent authority on restricted and prohibited weapons.
However, Liberal Public Safety critic Wayne Easter, who supports some but not all of Bill C-42, says this item will instead give the justice minister power over prohibited and restricted classifications, thereby making them susceptible to lobbyists such as the NFA. “It becomes a decision based on political pressure, rather than evidence-based decisions.”
“Funny huh?” says Clare about C-42’s resurrection as we stalk the gun show. He’s cocking his brows, grinning slyly, playing coy because he knows what I know—what anyone who’s been paying attention knows—that it’s related to the NFA’s sudden decision to pull out of hearings on another bill, C-51. Three days before the lobby was scheduled to testify against the anti-terror bill, it pulled out. A few days later, the gun bill was back at the house. Coincidence? Clare, in between nerdy giggles, will only say that the NFA shouldn’t be used as a stick to beat Harper. But the suggestion from many, including MP Easter, is that there was some sort of quid pro quo to resuscitate C-42.
If true, it’s about all the influence the NFA exerted on the gun bill, as it was shut out of consultations, says Clare. Instead, a lobby seat on the firearms advisory committee was occupied by the Canadian Shooting Sports Association president Tony Bernardo—the other guy in a suit jacket at the gun show. Circumnavigating the hall, they share a cordial but awkward “hey” as we pass the CSSA’s booth, just as Clare is boasting about his organization’s 75,000 members—triple that of the Ontario-based CSSA.
“Our association is focused on legislative results,” Bernardo later tells me. “The real work of changing laws happens legislatively, and that’s where our focus has been. We’re in Ottawa, we’re in the committees, we’re in the rooms. ‘Cause quite frankly, the first rule of lobbying is: be there.”
The NFA, for its part, spends a lot of time at the Supreme Court instead. Two recent setbacks for gun control and tough-on-crime legislation—one denying the Quebec government access to the firearms registry, another striking down mandatory sentencing for restricted or prohibited firearms possession—were funded by the NFA and defended by its lawyer, Solomon Friedman. This makes the organization, in Friedman’s words, “2-0 at the Supreme Court of Canada.”
Such high-profile cases have been Clare’s modus operandi. He sees a faster path to the Canada he wants through the courts than the benches. When NFA founder Dave Tomlinson died in 2007, some predicted the CSSA would fill its role as the national lobby. The opposite has happened: Clare says that membership has doubled since he took the reins in 2010.
“They’re now the public face of gun owners,” says Brown. “Whereas in the past it was more traditional hunting groups that were not as radical, this current version of the organization definitely copies its approach from American gun groups that are far more strident.”
Not all members are happy with Clare’s leadership. Last February, members of the executive board, frustrated with the organization’s lack of transparency, ousted him as president, but reinstated him a month later. (It’s the only thing Clare won’t comment on, partly because it’s gotten so ugly it’s now before the Queen’s Court.) The NFA’s social media is full of members who’ve lost confidence in him, calling Clare unprofessional, sexist and power-hungry after firing its executive vice-president, and calling him out for bending on the freedom-restricting bill C-51. But what you won’t find is members upset with how the NFA promotes itself.
The Canadian gun lobby borrows a few moves from the NRA’s playbook, deflecting blame to mental illness, stoking fears of government seizure and embracing brazenness. It’s also undergone a marketing makeover, with a new alternative logo that’s a half maple leaf/half semiautomatic rifle and a two-word slogan members gladly splash all over their social media: “No compromise.”
But whereas the NRA will lie in wait after national tragedies, usually responding that it’s a time for prayer, not debate, the NFA uses them to prove a point, including sending out a press release to say that the last summer’s Moncton shootings that left three RCMP officers dead, and two severely injured “demonstrate […] that none of Canada’s firearms control efforts over the past 50 years have had any effect on preventing violence”— sent while the town was still on lockdown. (Two of the killed officers were NFA members, says Clare.)
The more noticeable differences are between the NFA and its Canadian counterparts, like the CSSA. Whereas other gun groups are willing to accept some controls, like gun licensing, Clare’s group opposes that, and universal background checks, and government-mandated training—and just about anything preventing gun proliferation.
I grew up in High Prairie, a community where the annual local gun show brings out 4,500 spectators—more than there are townspeople. I attended a high school where hunting and firearms safety classes had been offered. For me, it’s hard to imagine a Canada where guns are even more ubiquitous. Unless you’re talking handguns, concealed and carried, which the NFA supports (but calls “discrete carry”). “We support personal defense for all responsible people,” says Clare.
“My ideal Canada, consists of a country [without] a National Firearms Association because all the political parties have accepted and understand that firearms are not a danger for society.”
He truly believes the nation is better off if he can leave his house, get in his car and teach a lecture with a pistol on his hip. “My ideal Canada,” he said, “consists of a country where I don’t have to have a National Firearms Association because all the political parties have accepted and understand that firearms are not a danger for society.”
I’m trying to picture this for my hometown. Below its salt-of-the-earth veneer, High Prairie’s crime rate is four times the national average. It has high unemployment,and an average family income nearly half the rest of Alberta’s. In theory, it’s the type of place where even more lax gun laws could be problematic, but there’s no way to know without undoing a century of legislation. It’s an experiment Clare thinks is worthwhile.
He’s loathe to draw parallels with United States gun culture, what with its centuries of racial tensions and inequality, but seeing as how its gun laws are written at the state level, not the federal, it offers 50 petri dishes of strong and weak gun control in action. According to public policy report from the Center for American Progress, “the 10 states with the weakest gun laws collectively have a level of gun violence that is more than twice as high—104 percent higher—than the 10 states with the strongest gun laws.”
I couldn’t get an interview with any representatives of the Coalition for Gun Control, but one doesn’t need a talking head to find support for some form of gun restriction at home. According to Statistics Canada, firearm homicide has decreased by almost half since 1991’s stricter gun control measures, and before the long gun registry was dismantled, their use in homicide was down by a third. Accidental deaths by firearms are down too.
But Clare counters statistical claims, pointing out the RCMP’s own bias as a historically anti-gun voice, and citing research from Gary Mauser and Caillin Langmann, two academics and unabashed gunnies, whose work suggest that any decline has more to do with the aging population. During the deadliest decades, the ’60s and ’70s, baby boomers were also reaching the age when people are most likely to commit murder, their 20s and 30s.
The narrative Clare much prefers is this: “There is nothing you can do about bad people doing bad things. But there aren’t many of them.” He adds, “If you look at who has caused the most deaths by firearm, the answer is very clear, and it’s not me sticking up a 7/11. It’s governments. Against their own citizens. And a lot of people say, ‘This is Canada. That won’t happen in Canada.’ Well it won’t, as long as we have guns.”
Clare sounds foreign to me. One of the biggest differences between Canadians and Americans has been our respect for government, our willingness, as firearms expert and former RCMP Alan Voth put it, to “look to them for [our] safety. Americans take more responsibility for their own security.” For a lot of reasons—social, economic, racial, demographic, take your pick—we’re not grappling with the same level of institutional abuses of power symbolized by the Walter Scotts, Eric Garners and Michael Browns.
But as our elected government tries to broaden its spying and detention powers through anti-terror legislation, perhaps it is a valid concern to hold. Or, perhaps, it’s an alien sentiment sneaking across the border to be adopted by a privileged majority, the white male demographic that are the face of gun culture. Either way, it’s unsettling.
After we’ve weaved through every aisle at the gun show, and he’s given me a taste of some of the 350 vendors, we return to the NFA’s table where he sends me off with a “No Compromise” pin—and some homework.
Back in Edmonton, where I live, I follow a pack of Stitches bag-wielding shoppers through a wafting aura of cinnamon buns, past an HMV and into the Wild West Shooting Range at West Edmonton Mall. Yes, you really can find everything there, including a 9mm Luger, which at 871 grams feels deceptively and terrifyingly light for what it’s built to do.
Even fingering the trigger I’m daunted by too many things to recall from a nonchalant lesson that took less time than finding parking. So, while shooters in the adjacent stall each get a spotter in blue overalls, my nervous laughter and sweating forehead earns me two.
The recoil kicks against my hands, vibrates up my arms, through my shoulders, and slightly whips my neck and head, leaving me feeling like I’m not actually in control of this fatal thing pinned between my numb hands. The empty shells bouncing off my forehead don’t help. But as it physically warms and the sulphuric odour takes hold, I can’t shake the undeniable feeling of badassery, especially each time I eject and load a clip.
After five of them and 50 rounds, I place the Luger on the shelf before me, thank the supervisors and almost leave without my paper target. I’m self-conscious walking to Tim Horton’s with the bullet-riddled memento rolled under my arms, until I unravel it on the table for closer inspection. Fondling a gaping hole in the bullseye and perfect piercing between the extraterrestrial cowboy’s eyes, I can’t help but feel impressed with myself.
And then I notice the logo in the bottom right corner, as if to say, This proud moment was brought to you by the National Firearms Association.