Because your right to bear arms is as Canadian as maple syrup.
Canadians are passionately attached to their rights. Free speech, freedom of association, free and fair elections … and the right to bear arms.
Lately that last one has been portrayed as somehow unCanadian, even sneered at as distinctly American. But actually it’s a fundamental part of our heritage.
When Canadians fought for self-government in the 1830s they were following a tradition dating back not just to Britain’s Glorious Revolution but to Magna Carta and even the end of Roman Britain.
The Canadians who fought for liberty in two world wars handled guns as familiar objects, tools deserving of respect but part of the natural inheritance of free-spirited, independent people.
In A Right to Arms we examine this Canadian tradition, the reasons for it, its history, contemporary challenges and arguments against gun ownership and why it is these arguments, not guns, that are unCanadian.
The Right to Bear Arms tells the distinctly Canadian story of a people who have carried weapons in self-defence, including defence against tyranny, since time out of mind. It confronts the arguments against gun ownership today, on grounds of public safety or cultural inheritance, and shows that gun ownership is as Canadian as maple syrup or free speech.
Act 1: Opening
The documentary will begin by discussing the fundamental question of what kind of people Canadians are and their relationship to the state.
Our ancient right of self-defence is based on our strongly self-reliant character and attachment to our inherent rights including, most fundamentally, the right to life that we are entitled to protect when necessary with means suitable to the occasion.
It will also explain how a fairly recent feeling that all tradition is harmful, contaminated by racism, sexism and general intolerance, has undermined our attachment to our traditions, including leaving us essentially deprived of all the tools necessary to protect ourselves, pepper spray and pointed sticks as well as guns. But it will argue that current laws do not make us safer, do bring the law itself into disrepute, and are unjust, since no one has the right to tell us that, if the police are not on hand, we may not effectively resist whatever indignity, injury or death predatory animals or people seek to inflict on us.
Canadians have at the moment no legally enforceable right to bear arms. But we used to, and we should get it back, because it is common sense and a natural right.
Act 2: Our heritage
This section will begin by explaining that enjoying the natural right to bear arms in practice has been the mark of a free person since the Romans left Britain. It was expressly part of the ceremony for freeing a slave in late Saxon and early Norman times to give them weapons. The English did not trust their government, hence Magna Carta, but it trusted them, hence the requirement that able-bodied men learn to use a longbow in the 14th century. This section will also will trace how the English policed themselves in every sense from politics to criminal law, and refused to allow the state to maintain a standing army because it was not necessary for defence or public order and was a threat to freedom. Only defeated peoples were disarmed, including Highland Scots after Culloden, in the Britain from which the United States and Canada sprang.
In Canada, from the first settlements, aboriginal and European, and late as Confederation, Canadians carried weapons without it arousing controversy: bows, swords, pikes, knives, guns and anything we thought suitable. The continent could not have been tamed any other way. We also inherited at Confederation a Constitution similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom, including the right to bear arms in the 1688 British Bill of Rights (for Protestants, in Britain at the time). And figures from Sir John A. Macdonald to William Lyon Mackenzie to Louis Riel insisted that Canadians had the right to bear arms for self-protection including against tyrannical governments.
As for the state, it generally not only permitted but actively encouraged gun ownership and proficiency. The exceptions prove the rule; there were measures temporarily or permanently to disarm aboriginals, rebellious Quebecers, Irish workers and others unjustly denied full membership in the political community, and especially in the case of aboriginals with clear intent to deprive them of other rights once they could not resist effectively.
Act 3: Canada today
From time to time the government made tentative efforts to take away Canadians’ weapons, supposedly as part of some novel and enlightened progressive departure. But really it was the continuation of an impulse rightly resisted through many centuries. As the state became more administratively capable and socially ambitious in the 20th century, it exploited political panics and bigotry, from anti-Irish and anti-East European sentiment to a post-World War I Red Scare and Depression-era anti-worker feelings, to try at least to register guns. And it also restricted various other weapons on the grounds that immigrants prone to intoxication and random violence would slaughter one another if allowed to carry brass knuckles or switchblades.
For all that, it was not until the late 1970s that the state really began to succeed in treating citizens generally rather than particular unpopular as untrustworthy, both hapless and reckless, incapable of judging and managing dangerous situations for themselves, and persuading them to take that view of one another. The Trudeau Sr. administration made the first real attempt to treat law-abiding gun owners as an inherent menace to themselves and others. And this approach continued under subsequent regimes, which exploited the shooting of 14 women in Montreal in 1986 to implement aggressive measures including the infamous long gun registry under Minister of Justice Allan Rock who frankly said in his view only agents of the state should have guns.
It was a sentiment alien to our heritage. And while C-68 and similar measures had no discernible positive impact on public safety, and caused a deep rift between the state and many citizens.
It’s not just western gun owners who despise and often ignore the law on weapons. How many Canadian women carry something in their purse or handbag for protection against creeps in dark places? Yet virtually all of them are criminals in the view of the police and prosecutors. As are any number of Canadians who use legally owned objects to protect their property or loved ones from criminal intruders.
By now Canadians are for all practical purposes prohibited from carrying any effective weapon for self-protection when abroad except against wild animals in wild places. And they are increasingly prohibited from having arms, not just firearms but all sorts of weapons, even in their homes, let alone their businesses, for self-defence. We are distrusted by the state, routinely treated as unable to control either ourselves or weapons, prevented from self-harm or mayhem to others only by vigilant state measures to keep us from owning dangerous things.
The documentary will examine the most common argument against guns, namely high levels of gun violence in the United States. It will show that Americans are more prone to murder one another with guns than other people, but by no means unusually likely to murder one another at all. In terms of murders per capita, they are in the lower half of all countries. It will also note that within Canada, levels of violence vary dramatically for cultural rather than hardware reasons. Despite all the restrictions on ownership and especially use of weapons, Canadians are among the most heavily armed people in the world, including ranking around 12th globally in firearm ownership. Yet we do not slaughter one another over the Sunday roast or during arguments.
This section will also note the extent to which, around the world, people do arm themselves against danger regardless of the rules, including increasingly in Europe recently, with results that depend on culture rather than technology or opportunity. And it will discuss failed efforts to reduce criminal violence by taking weapons away from people only the government imagines are likely to engage in it, while leaving lawbreakers and thugs in possession of dangerous arms because criminals are by definition not respectful of the law.
Act 4: Looking Forward
The conclusion will argue that Canadians are neither fools nor maniacs, and that they are more trustworthy than the state when it comes to judging when and how they need something more than an empty hand to protect themselves. In the end it comes down to what kind of people we are, and whether our natural as well as constitutionally guaranteed “right to life, liberty and security of the person” should include the tools we need to protect ourselves in emergencies. The documentary will argue that we always did, and still should.