B.C. handguns | BCBusiness
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.
“Robert” is a local gun owner. He does not wish to be identified because he is worried about jeopardizing his gun club membership. Robert never goes to shooting ranges – for him, the gun club membership is just a technicality. His collection of 19 guns includes a Lee Enfield rifle from the Boer War and a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum. He doesn’t have a collector’s license – had he opted for one, Robert would not be allowed to fire the weapons. “Why bother to get a collector’s license when I can just get a gun club membership for $30?” he says.
He qualified for his license via Silver Core, a gun club that holds training and testing events around the Lower Mainland, but does not actually operate a firing range. Robert attended a safety course held at Vancouver’s Croatian Cultural Centre, and subsequently passed the required test. Most of his shooting is done up a logging road near Hope. “The gun club membership was just something I needed to get,” he says.
Mathieson acknowledges that for some handgun owners, gun club membership is simply a formality that allows them to acquire weapons legally. “But the transactions still have to be approved by the government,” he points out. “Most people who do belong to a gun club probably only go once or twice a year. They just want to be able to own a firearm because they can.”
For many gun enthusiasts, a collector’s license is not necessarily an attractive option, since it does not allow the collector to shoot the weapons. But Mathieson sees a lot of collectors, whether they’re officially licensed or not. “It’s like any other collection that a person gets involved in,” he says. “It’s not necessarily because they’re active in it. It’s like stamp collecting. Not every collector has an active stamp collection that they’re trading every day. It’s just something they’re involved in. A lot of people do collect arms. They want different models and different styles because they have a neat feature or have a bit of cachet to them. Anything from the guy who wants to collect war memorabilia to the guys who just want to have every calibre of a specific model.”
Perhaps the most fundamental difference between American and Canadian retail gun trade is the sale of guns for personal protection and home security. In the U.S. it’s a standard sales pitch, backed by widespread “castle” laws granting the right to fire upon home intruders. Hagen believes that in Canada a permit to carry restricted and prohibited firearms might be issued to an individual who can make a legitimate case that their life is in danger. However, such permits are virtually never issued. Hagen says the NFA filed Freedom of Information requests attempting to discover how many such permits have been issued, but failed to get a satisfactory answer.
Mathieson is adamant that home security plays no part in Canadian gun trade. “It’s not legal in Canada to use firearms for that,” he says. “And also the general culture of Canada is much different than it is in the United States. We just have a different way of living.”
Incidents like the Aurora, Colorado, massacre of July 20, 2012, in which James Holmes allegedly entered a movie theatre showing The Dark Knight Rises with a variety of weapons and killed 12 people, injuring 58, have a galvanizing effect on both sides of the gun control debate. While many Canadians – and Americans – respond by reiterating the need for strong gun control, the most tangible effect south of the border is often an increase in gun sales. According to Bloomberg News, in the four days following the mass shooting Colorado gun sales shot up by 41 per cent; in Arizona following the 2011 shooting that killed six people and wounded congresswoman Gabby Giffords, gun sales in that state increased 60 per cent. A North Carolina gun dealer quoted by Bloomberg suggests that the driving force behind such sales spikes is not safety, but a fear that mass shootings will spur tighter gun control regulations.
According to Mathieson, there is no corresponding sales bump in Vancouver. As for the American belief that guns can protect individuals from gun violence, he offers: “I believe people think they are capable of things they are not truly capable of.”
Americans are certainly more capable of locating firearms. A quick check of online listings shows more places to buy guns in cozy Bellingham, Washington, than in the city of Vancouver. The NFA’s Hagen suggests that Vancouver has made it a policy that no new gun shops will be allowed in city limits. “Certain city councillors have decided not to issue firearms business licenses,” he says. “The three gun stores in Vancouver have grandfathered licenses. It’s not possible for another [gun dealer] to apply for a license in Vancouver.”
Vancouver city councillor Heather Deal says no such policy, official or unofficial, exists. “Any new application would have to comply with the federal Firearms Act,” Deal says, “but otherwise it would be the regular process of acquiring a retail license.”
Mathieson believes other practical issues might prevent the arrival of new competitors. “Margins on both guns and ammunition are less than 20 per cent,” Mathieson says. Then there’s the process of building inventory. “We’ve got about $2,000,000 in inventory most of the time,” he says.
Most of that inventory comes from American manufacturers like Remington Arms Co. Inc. Each shipment requires an import certificate from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Export approval must also come from U.S. authorities, a process that generally takes about eight weeks. For European weapons such as Glock and Sig Sauer, Reliable Gun deals with Canadian-based distributors who handle the initial process of importation. Reliable also handles a certain amount of military surplus, although not as much as local competitor Lever Arms.
“The biggest issue is the tremendous capital outlay needed to get started in the industry and be competitive. [I’m] not saying you couldn’t get started with $100,000 to $150,000 initial investment. But credit is not as easy to get as it once was, so I’m sure that’s got a lot to do with it,” Mathieson explains. He suspects that getting started was probably a lot easier for his grandfather. “I know the regulations have changed a lot in the last 60 years.”
Mathieson believes 70 to 80 per cent of Reliable’s business comes from the Greater Vancouver area. “I really think Vancouver is actually being pretty well-served by the stores that are here,” he offers.
A Reliable employee steps into Mathieson’s office to relay a customer request. With the relative paucity of gun dealers in Vancouver, Reliable must necessarily handle all aspects of the business, including gun smithing. And it’s not always about repair. “A fellow has let his firearms license lapse,” Mathieson explains, “so he’s wanting to have the firearm deactivated so he can keep it and have it de-registered. It requires full deactivation – remove the firing pin, drill out the breech base so it can no longer support a cartridge, slot and weld the barrel to the frame so it can’t be replaced, plug the barrel and you have to plug the chambers so it can no longer take ammunition.”
Reliable also stocks hunting equipment, from decoys to hunting knives, and of course that AR-15 barbecue lighter. But guns are the heart of the business. And it seems safe to expect that most people involved in Canada’s gun trade will not be cheerleaders for gun control. But Mathieson chooses his words carefully on the subject. “I would like to see a little less regulation in Canada,” he admits. “I think it should be a little bit more flexible based on where you are. If you’re in someplace like New Hazelton, B.C., you step outside your door, there’s a chance there’s going to be a bear in your backyard. I think you ought to be able to have a rifle or a shotgun, not locked away in a safe with a trigger lock on it, because your life depends on it. Whereas in downtown Vancouver, yes, absolutely you should have your firearms locked away.”
Mathieson readily acknowledges the need for regulation. “Having a free-for-all doesn’t make any sense, with the products that are available today. Fifty to 60 years ago, when there was very little to no regulation on firearms, the number of firearms available and styles of firearms available was considerably less. It wasn’t required. Times have changed. People have changed.”
But people still want guns. It’s only 10 a.m., and the store is already full of customers. Mathieson steps out of the back office and up to the glass case where a throng of customers await. It’s hunting season in B.C., and today Mathieson is definitely the hunted.