In Canada as well as in the U.S., advocates of gun restrictions are cheering Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ban on so-called “assault weapons” in the wake of a mass murder in Nova Scotia. Some of the crackdown’s fans even say the move isn’t enough—they want more! The cheers come although the ban is arbitrary, wouldn’t have prevented the rampage, and has been enacted by decree.
In fact, Trudeau’s move fully validates suspicions that government is always on the verge of authoritarian excess and that cooperating with its creeping restrictions is foolish.
On April 19, 2020, Gabriel Wortman donned a Royal Canadian Mounted Police uniform and slipped behind the wheel of a decommissioned squad car complete with light bar and decals to begin a 14-hour killing spree that ended only with his own death. Canada has strict gun laws compared to most of the U.S., but Wortman, “who was not licensed to possess firearms, used guns illegally obtained in Canada and from U.S. sources,” according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). That is, Wortman broke Canada’s law against impersonating a police officer and used black-market weapons to commit his murders.
Days later, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—who was already committed to tighter gun laws—used the mass murder as a jumping-off point for implementing part of his wish list of legal changes. Trudeau “announced the ban of over 1,500 models and variants of assault-style firearms. These models represent nine categories of firearms and two types identified by characteristic,” in the words of his press release.
As is always the case, the named “assault-style firearms” are distinguished from other guns primarily by aesthetics rather than power or function. The ban is to be implemented over two years, during which time the affected firearms can only be transported to be deactivated, taken home, exported, or surrendered to police, “unless you are an Indigenous person exercising treaty rights to hunt or a sustenance hunter.” Compensation for owners of the newly outlawed guns is promised for some time in the future, although nothing is yet in place.
Importantly, nothing in the ban would have prevented Wortman’s rampage, given that he was already unlicensed, illegally impersonating a cop, and using black-market firearms. True, under the new rules, his illegal weapons would be a bit more illegal, providing a few extra charges to press against his moldering corpse, if you’re into that sort of thing. In fact, Wortman’s entire crime—committed entirely in defiance of the law, by a man who burned his own home and clearly had no plans to survive—seems a brutal demonstration of the limits of governments’ abilities to “reform” society and to protect people from human predators.
Not that anybody got to raise such objections ahead of time, because there was no debate. Trudeau’s ban was implemented via an “order in council“—a decree that entirely bypasses Parliament. Orders in council resemble the executive orders issued by U.S. presidents, and have been subject to similar mission-creep, long ago evolving from means for settling administrative matters within government agencies into end-runs around normal democratic procedures.
“The trend in consequence of two wars in one generation has been in the direction of by-passing Parliament by the passing of orders-in-council which interfere with individual rights,” John Diefenbaker, who later became prime minister, objected in a 1949 speech.
Trudeau’s decree lives up to his predecessor’s worst fears, threatening people with legal consequences for continuing to act in a harmless way that was perfectly legal up until his pronouncement, all in the name of preventing a crime that would have remained untouched by the new rules.
“Today, I became a criminal; not through my own actions, but due to a decision made by Justin Trudeau,” writes Phil Steernberg in response to the ban. “With the stroke of a pen, Trudeau made me and 2.1M other Canadians criminals.”
Steernberg goes on to detail the intrusions and oversight that gun owners already suffer in Canada, only to be criminalized anyway with the promise that they won’t actually be prosecuted for another two years.
Then again, the Canadian government can only prosecute the violators it can find, and it’s not entirely clear how many firearms and their owners are affected. The prime minister’s office estimates “there are currently over 100,000 restricted firearms among the models that are now prohibited. This number does not include other newly-prohibited models that were not subject to registration requirements.” That is, the government has registration records for guns that were already classified as “restricted,” but has no idea who might own other guns falling under the new ban.
That lack of certainty comes after Canada’s government made an abortive run at registering all long guns. Amidst soaring costs and widespread defiance, the registry was abandoned in 2012. As in other countries (gun policy expert Gary Mauser estimates that registries usually achieve only about one-sixth compliance), Canadian gun owners were hesitant to formally acknowledge ownership of property that might eventually be targeted for tighter restrictions.
“There’s only two reasons to register something – gov’t plans to tax it or confiscate it,” the Canadian Shooting Sports Association warned in 2013.
Sure enough, in 2020, the Canadian prime minister is imposing a ban by decree. And some gun prohibition fans want him to go even further. The Globe and Mail calls the ban a “weak half-measure” because it doesn’t criminalize the possession of handguns. Former Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe spokesman Michael Bociurkiw wants to seal the vast border with the U.S. to curtail gun smuggling and “to make Canadians feel safer.”
Dutifully law-abiding owners of registered weapons will have a relatively tough time evading prohibition. But those who ignored registration requirements, or whose guns weren’t subject to registration to begin with, will have the option of quietly hiding their possessions while knowing that their distrust of the government was justified.
The obvious lesson to take away from the crackdown in Canada is that the government you live under can turn against you at any time. And bringing yourself to the attention of that government—say, by registering property that some officials want to further restrict or completely prohibit—is just asking for trouble. That lesson should be taken to heart not just in Canada, but any place that those who would inflict restrictions and prohibitions on the rest of us seek power. Which is to say, Canada’s gun ban by decree provides a schooling in authoritarianism for everybody.