Ottawa's plan for guns misfired. Alberta gun cultures might help us understand why
Distrust lingers among a group that has held historic wariness over restrictions
Jason Acorn was 12 years old when he first shot a deer.
He was in the McLeod River Valley area, far west of Edmonton. It was freezing cold, and snow was everywhere.
He remembers pouting, because his brother had just shot a deer and he hadn't.
But then, just at last light, a small white-tailed doe, probably weighing about 100 pounds, appeared. Acorn's father whispered to him: "OK, Jay. It's your turn."
He fired, and the animal fell to the ground. He began to cry. Then he cried some more. When he collected himself and dried his tears, he walked to the animal in awe.
In retrospect, he views it as almost a passageway to adulthood.
"It was like I was accepted. And I was part of the hunting community. Finally, I wasn't just a bystander," he said. "And they were so proud of me. Because it's not an easy thing to do, take life. Doesn't matter what it is."
From that day forward, guns were a big part of his life. He's often hunted with rifles, but also tours western Canada as a bow hunter. Like many gun owners in Alberta, Acorn followed the recent debate around gun control legislation emerging out of Ottawa closely. He felt like he was being lumped in with criminals, even though he had been following the rules to the letter all his life.
That debate around what would happen with guns took place across the country, but landed especially hard in Alberta, a province that has positioned itself as vocal opposition to new firearm laws.
Last week, Alberta introduced the Firearms Act to push back against federal gun legislation, the latest move in a long period of opposition against new rules.
Distrust over regulation lingers for many in this province, much as it has through decades of debate over a subject that is, by its nature, emotional for all involved. It has nuance. And it doesn't involve just one monolithic "gun culture" to consider.
WATCH | Why Ottawa's plans for guns may have misfired in Alberta:
'We have no trust'
Whatever the original intent of the legislation, the proposed federal laws were deciphered very differently within different groups — the most contentious part being amendments that were withdrawn by the government earlier this year.
Conservatives and gun advocates said the government's proposed wording in those amendments would have banned common shotguns and hunting rifles. The Assembly of First Nations passed an emergency resolution in December opposing the legislation, saying the legislation would have infringed on First Nations and treaty rights.
Gun control advocates, such as PolySeSouvient, have said the legislative proposals were confusing but would not have prohibited most hunting models: "The echoing of gun lobby claims has contributed to widespread disinformation and unfounded fear among hunters."
The Liberal government, meanwhile, announced it would withdraw its amendments and acknowledged a need for more consultation. The government said it regretted the confusion.
Officials said the draft amendments weren't intended to punish rural Canadians, hunters or Indigenous people who rely on firearms; the intent was to focus on AR-15s and other assault-style weapons.
Still, in Alberta, wariness grew.
"We have no trust in the government right now," said Acorn.
So what was it that led to all of this confusion? How might it re-emerge as debate over guns continues?
And how might government and police balance all of this while adhering to the original stated goal: preventing mass shootings like the one in Nova Scotia in 2020, when a lone gunman killed 22 and injured three others.
In attempting to answer these questions, perhaps there's no better place to start than in Alberta.
Understanding Alberta's gun cultures
At a Calgary gun shop and indoor shooting range, J.R. Cox is showing off some firearms on display. There's the Browning A5, a standard hunting-type shotgun, and the Remington 700, a popular bolt-action rifle known for its excellent accuracy.
"We follow the rules. And we're not a problem. So it's kind of a point where you say to the rest of society, saying, 'Just leave us alone,'" he said.
Contention between the federal government and gun owners is not a new story. Gun ownership in Canada has routinely faced fresh regulation as lawmakers respond to weapons technology that grows increasingly more sophisticated.
But this round of consultation was unusual.
"This debate is one where the gun owners actually won," said A.J. Somerset, the author of Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun. He has written extensively about Canada's gun culture.
"Generally, the history of gun control has been a series of defeats for gun owners, as the scope of gun ownership has become steadily more limited in Canada. So, in that respect, it's an unusual victory."
He believes the victory was owed, in part, due to the gun lobby's ability to rile up hunters and make them feel threatened. That built loyalty to the cause and like-minded politicians, he said.
There were about 341,000 individual firearms licences in the province of Alberta as of Dec. 31, 2021, according to RCMP data.
Ontario stands atop the list with 629,000 licences, though Alberta's rate per capita is notably higher — with a rate of 742 compared with 412 per 10,000 citizens.
Saskatchewan, with 115,445 gun owners, has a rate of 957 per 10,000 people, while Manitoba has a rate of 667 per 10,000.
"Historically, Alberta has been a more rural base. So there have been historically high rates of gun ownership in Alberta relative to, say, Ontario, and an attitude more that guns are a normal part of life," said Somerset.
"If you have a ranch or farm, you're likely to view guns as a normal part of life. You use them to control pests around the property and stuff like that."
Not everyone in the province is opposed to stricter federal gun regulation. In fact, according to a May 2022 Angus Reid Institute poll, 54 per cent of Albertans were of the view that national rules were the only way to have effective gun policy, while 34 per cent said provinces should have the flexibility to decide whether or not to ban certain guns. The poll was conducted from Jan. 7 to 12, 2022.
But emotions run high in the province when authority figures are perceived to move against guns. In 2013, angry High River residents confronted members of the RCMP after Mounties took guns from flood-stricken homes in the community.
"I thought I lived in a free country. What this whole flood taught me is that I don't," resident Leslie Alexander said at the time.
Shooting clubs active around the province
Teri Bryant is Alberta's chief firearms officer, tasked with tackling gun crime, firearms licensing and overseeing training courses.
She has been vocal in her opposition against federal plans, and says her philosophy is that a robust firearms community and high levels of public safety can be mutually reinforcing goals.
"What a lot of people don't recognize is that this is a community," Bryant said in an interview.
In Alberta, groups of firearms enthusiasts gather in ways that might be off the radar for many. Take, for example, cowboy action shooting clubs.
That competitive sport sees participants, dressed in costumes suitable to the "Old West" era (think 1870s miners, cowboys and bankers), while using three different types of guns — handguns, rifles and shotguns — in a series of shooting competitions. Participants must, of course, fire weapons typical of the era, such as Colt revolvers or Winchester rifles.
"I guess what I enjoy, a lot of it would be the period clothing, the aliases, the competition, the community," said Matt Wear, the president of Alberta Frontier Shootists, a cowboy action shooting club based in Condor, Alta., a hamlet northwest of Calgary.
Or take the shooting sport that takes place under the banner of the International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC). Using pistols, rifles and shotguns, participants manoeuvre obstacle courses and are judged on accuracy, power and speed. Competitions take place around the world.
Firearms are also highly symbolic to some, and guns may have sentimental or historical value. Others centre firearms around their favourite recreational activity, which builds a culture.
A big problem remains
So what about what started all of this conversation: the violence on the streets of Canadian cities.
Proponents of stricter gun regulation would argue that activities such as leisurely, community-minded shooting are beside the point.
"We strongly recommend that the upcoming special consultations prioritize expert witnesses that can set the [record] straight about the true impacts of the amendments — before moving onto witnesses whose fears may be unfounded," wrote PolySeSouvient in a Feb. 9 letter to Liberal MP Ron McKinnon. He chairs the standing committee on public safety and national security.
Some believe important nuances have been lost in the debate, as government juggles developing new laws around restricting certain gun technologies, some of which have been around for decades.
"Even if the proposed amendments had gone through, most of these activities still would have been possible," said Blake Brown, a professor in the department of history at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, and the author of Arming and Disarming: A History of Gun Control in Canada.
"But I think some of the opposition was driven by that anger at having limited access to particular kinds of guns, which have had this kind of cultural resonance for some people."
Debate over how to protect Canadians from gun violence often rises to the surface in the wake of shocking, violent events. Jose Neto, a Brazilian man who was blinded by a stray bullet in downtown Calgary in 2008, has said he supports measures to ban guns or limit the use of them by citizens.
"I do hope that they restrict more in the near future here. Because I am a victim of it, and I don't want my kids to have to go through any of that," Neto said in 2022.
Calgary police last year said that cities like Calgary have a "shocking" amount of guns on the streets.
Last year was a particularly grim year when it came to gun violence in Calgary. The count of shootings in 2022 was 126 — which was 33 per cent higher than 2021, and 45 per cent higher than the five-year average, according to Calgary police data.
Police seized close to 2,000 guns in the city last year, 500 of which they refer to as "crime guns." They say these are guns that have been used in a crime, or have been illegally obtained. The Calgary Police Service laid roughly 1,500 charges based on those 500 guns.
"Almost all of the illegal guns [were] unlawfully obtained," said Supt. Cliff O'Brien. "So it's not lawful gun owners that are causing the problem. It's people that have guns when they're not supposed to have the guns."
Such instances have led to tragic incidents on Calgary streets. In May 2022, 40-year-old Angela McKenzie was killed in a collision when two vehicles were engaged in a chase, firing bullets at each other.
Her partner, Jeffery Poirier, has been raising her five children ever since.
"There is a problem with the illegal firearms on the streets. No question," Poirier said. "But what can they do? You know, the rules and the laws and that are only going to do so much."
The federal government, gun owners and gun control groups seem to agree on one thing: the initial round of consultation was confusing. All three groups say they agree that the ultimate goal is the same: to prevent mass shootings, not to impede lawful gun owners.
As Somerset, the author of Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun, puts it, Ottawa will be tasked in its next round of consultations to consider the various gun cultures that exist, not just in Alberta but across the country.
For example, though hunters coalesce around hunting, and may not share political or religious beliefs, they do share sets of cultural values, Somerset said. Those values have to do with the relationship between humans and nature, humans and animals, along with conservation principles.
He said opponents of gun regulation were successful in portraying the Liberals as attacking gun ownership.
"Powering resistance to Bill C-21 amendments was this idea that this was actually against hunting, it was against their identity. So they closed ranks and pushed back very hard," he said.
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