Civilians with guns is an American problem, right? Think again. More than 100,000 handguns and semi-automatic rifles are in civilian hands in B.C.
Shane Mathieson is running a little late. Just after 9 a.m. on a sunny September Wednesday he takes the padlock off the metal gates that bar the door to Reliable Gun & Tackle at 3227 Fraser Street, a little south of Kingsway. The first customer is already waiting on the sidewalk and the store is soon filling up. It’s hunting season, essentially Christmas for gun shops. Customers are checking the mechanisms of handguns pulled from glass display cases and examining the barrels of hunting rifles selected from racks that line the walls behind the L-shaped counter. There are rifles, shotguns and semi-automatic weapons like the M14 and the AR-15, the semi-automatic version of the M16 rifle used by the U.S. military. There’s also a smaller version on sale, but it’s a barbecue lighter. Taped to the cash register is a yellow car-window sign reading, “Driver carries only $20 worth of ammunition.”
Guns may be a reliably controversial subject, but Reliable Gun is the model of an established family business that has occupied its 2,500-square-foot store since 1950. Reliable is one of only three gun shops within city limits and a new one hasn’t opened since 1969. Mathieson, who now owns the shop along with his brother John, is the third generation of his family to run it. The firearms trade, he says, is a business of low margins, high costs and inevitable government regulation. But although Reliable has seen some difficult times, these days business is good.
In discussions of Canada’s defining traits, gun ownership rarely comes up. That may be because of our tendency to define ourselves in opposition to the U.S., a nation that has frequently defined itself through its guns. The U.S. constitutional amendment authorizing gun possession arrived second only to the one authorizing free speech. American gun ownership is unparalleled in the world. According to the 2007 small arms survey conducted at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, there are 88.8 guns per 100 U.S. residents. And that’s just the legal ones.
Yet the contrast is not as stark as some Canadians may think. At 30.8 guns per 100 people, Canada ranks inside the top 15 globally (although well behind those famous pacifists the Swiss, who rank fourth, with an estimated 45.7 per 100). A Department of Justice study estimated that 26 per cent of Canadian homes contain at least one gun. It can even be argued that our national rate of gun ownership is all the more impressive considering the hoops a Canadian gun buyer must jump through. If Canadian laws were as relaxed as those of most American states, who knows which nation might count the most well-armed households?
Reliable Gun & Tackle Ltd. was founded in 1950 by Shane’s grandfather, James Mathieson, a Scottish émigré and former milkman. Last year Shane and John Mathieson officially took over ownership from their father David, who is still a regular presence in the store with his dog. “We had a lot of lean years where we came close to locking the doors and walking away,” Shane says, adding the late ’90s and early 2000s were particularly tough.
He points a finger at governments provincial and federal, blaming the B.C. NDP government’s tax policies and the federal Liberals’ introduction of Bill C-68, the long-gun registry and the introduction of a graduated licensing system requiring more testing. “With the younger guys [the testing] was no major issue, but it was the older guys protesting,” Mathieson points out.
More importantly, Mathieson believes the gun trade is highly vulnerable to economic downturns. “We’re a luxury,” he says. “We’re not a necessity.” Today business “seems to be a little better,” he notes. “The economy’s still not what it was three years ago, four years ago. But there are people who are enjoying a better work/life balance.”
American gun buyers might be surprised to hear guns described as solely a leisure item. It illustrates a stark difference in the legal gun trade north and south of the border. While guns are advertised and sold to Americans as a means of personal protection, such use is expressly forbidden in Canada. The purchase of handguns is restricted to licensed collectors – who are not legally permitted to shoot their weapons – or target-shooters who belong to gun clubs. Competitions are held year-round at gun ranges around the Lower Mainland, in some cases involving specialized speed-firing handguns costing thousands of dollars.
There are some military-surplus bargains available in the firearms market, but for the serious shopper, guns are not an inexpensive hobby. You can get a .22 rifle for about $200, but the Sako TRG-42 sniper rifle will set you back $4,650 plus tax, and that’s on special. Shotguns range from $600 all the way to about $15,000 for the Beretta DT 10 Trident EELL with a 30-inch barrel. A Russian military surplus Tokarev pistol (complete with leather holster) can be yours for just $200 when they’re in stock. But for the well-heeled, $2,700 plus tax gets you the Sig Sauer P210 Legend 9mm, billed on the Reliable website as “the finest service pistol ever made.” Other handguns, such as those designed for IPSC (International Practical Shooting Confederation) competition, can go for much higher. “Those guns can get up to five grand,” Mathieson says.
“We’ve got everything from people who are on income assistance all the way through CEOs of major corporations,” Mathieson says. “There’s a huge spectrum of people who are interested in the sport – both hunting and target shooting.”
The customers milling around Reliable Gun this morning are all men. While that’s typical, Mathieson says it’s no longer strictly the rule. “There’s more and more women getting involved in the sport,” he says. “That’s one of the things that’s been helping us along. More kids getting involved as well, both target shooting and hunting.”
Of the two pursuits, Mathieson believes target shooting may be the steadier business driver. “Hunting is seasonal – there’s only a few months when you can actually hunt,” he notes. “Target shooting you can do 12 months of the year.”
Two young men who have been looking at handguns have settled on a Beretta. One of them produces a gun club membership. “That’s a real good start,” the sales clerk tells him.
Anyone buying a gun in Canada must apply for a Possession and Acquisition License, which requires completion of a safety and education training program, an RCMP criminal background check, at least two reference checks and notification of spouse if there is one. The process takes about six weeks, after which the applicant only needs adequate credit on their Visa to get a shotgun or hunting rifle. Restricted weapons – handguns and semi-automatics with barrels shorter than 18.5 inches – require different permits. Unless applicants register as collectors – in which case they are allowed to own weapons but not to shoot them – they must apply for an ATT permit (Authorization to Transport). And to qualify for that, they must belong to a gun club.
According to Blair Hagen of the National Firearms Association, gun regulation in Canada fundamentally changed in 1991 when the Tory government brought in Bill C-17. Two years later the Chrétien Liberals followed with Bill C-68. The first bill introduced the requirement that gun purchasers complete a safety course and also moved some semi-automatic weapons into the restricted category while banning others outright. Bill C-68, in addition to its controversial long-gun registry, also mandated gun licensing. (Prior to C-68 a permit was needed to buy a gun, but the buyer did not require a license to keep one. While the Harper government did scrap the long-gun registry, other aspects of Bill C-68, including the licensing requirement, remain in force.) Whatever else the regulations accomplished, Hagen believes, they started a gun control debate that had not existed in Canada previously. “Everything changed,” Hagen says. “It woke a lot of people up.”
There are no gun clubs headquartered in Vancouver – the Vancouver Gun Club is actually in Richmond. Surrey, Langley, Maple Ridge and Mission have gun clubs where members can shoot their own guns or visitors can try out the club’s own arsenal. But it’s possible to get a gun club membership without ever going to a gun range.