Firearms control -- what makes sense?

By David A Tomlinson
web posted March 1998

Positions on firearms control range from "Only police and soldiers should have guns!" -- a classic recipe for the easy formation of a police state any time the government gets itself into trouble -- to "There should be no laws about guns whatever!" -- a classic recipe for national chaos whenever the nation divides over some major political, social or ethnic question.

The root question is: "Who should be allowed legal, unsupervised access to and use of firearms?"

I say that is the root question, because once legal, unsupervised access has been granted, there is no practical way to exercise any effective control over what the person with access will do with the firearm. One can write laws and regulations until the cows come home -- but they will only be obeyed if the person chooses to obey them. From that, it logicially follows that certain classes of people should be denied legal, unsupervised access to and use of firearms.

The three classes that should be denied access are the untrained, the incompetent and the malicious. It is folly to give a loaded firearm to a person who does not know how to handle it safely, to one who has been proved untrainable (for any one of a wide variety of reasons) or to one who wants the firearm to facilitate his injuring, robbing or raping of others.

This raises an obvious question. How do we determine which people are untrained, incompetent or malicious?

Of course, no system will ever be able to answer perfectly. The best available system is already in use, in many other fields. We already use it to control legal, unsupervised access to and use of many things -- aircraft, automobiles, explosives, pesticides, anaesthetics -- the list is long.

Broken down to bedrock, that system seeks favorable answers to three questions:

  1. Does the applicant know how to handle and use this class of equipment safely for this class of purpose?
  2. Does this applicant know the rules?
  3. Is this applicant the kind of person who obeys the rules?

If -- and only if -- three favorable answers are given, then the system should allow legal, unsupervised access and use of equipment which would be dangerous if in the hands of someone untrained, incompetent or malicious..

But where would we get answers to such questions? Let us turn to an area where we already use that system -- control of legal, unsupervised access to and use of aircraft, and study how it is done..

Training a new aircraft pilot is a matter of teaching while under the supervision of a qualified Instructor. If the student pilot proves to be unteachable, he or she fails the course -- and does not qualify for legal, unsupervised access. That takes care of the safe-use capability qualification and the knowledge of the rules (also part of the training) qualification questions.

The third question can only be partly answered by the Instructor. The Instructor is the only person who studies the student during a relatively long training period, and is the only person who has observed how the student behaves while actually in (supervised) control of the equipment -- equipment which is dangerous to others if the person using it is untrained, incompetent, or malicious.

Put yourself, for a moment, in the shoes of the Instructor. You have a student pilot who cannot be made safe, because the student does not do the correct things, even when shown how and why that is the only safe behavior. Would you certify this person by stating that the student deserves favorable answers to those three questions -- knowing that the student will be sharing the same skies with you, once the student becomes a licensed pilot?

I thought not.

Certification by an Instructor -- to a reasonable standard -- is the core and key to a practical system. It works elsewhere -- not perfectly, but better than anything else we know -- so why not use it for firearms?

There is one extra, above and beyond the capability of the Instructor to answer. Part of the answer to the third question must come from a police check of the student's criminal record. That is not unusual -- it is, for example, a requirement for gaining a taxi driver's license in most jurisdictions. A serious and recent criminal record is a record of disobeying the rules that a civilized society lives by.

Having outlined the fundamentals, let us proceed to the next level. A pilot's license that certifies a pilot as qualified to fly a small aircraft by day may well not certify him or her as qualified to fly a big jetliner full of passengers through a thunderstorm at midnight. There is a basic level, and there are advanced levels of qualification.

In the firearms control system devised by Canada's National Firearms Association, levels are taken into consideration. That is done much like the pilot's license system -- by dividing the qualifications into qualifications for the types of equipment, and for their handling in certain areas of use.

Equipment is divided into four classes: rimfire long arms -- all rimfire firearms over 26"/660mm long; handguns -- all firearms capable of firing when less than or equal to 26"/660mm long; centrefire long arms -- all centerfire firearms over 26"/660mm long; and all full automatic firearms.

Uses are divided into six classes: possession -- for collectors who never load a firearm; basic -- for those who shoot on basic shooting ranges; advanced -- for those who shoot on advanced ranges, where the shooting requires drawing a loaded firearm or carrying one from place to place; field -- for use in areas other than shooting ranges where shooting is allowed; professional -- for firearms salesmen, expert witnesses, gunsmiths, etc.; and police -- for everyone who carries a loaded firearm to protect human life from criminal violence.

The firearms permit is divided into a 4 X 6 grid of qualification entry boxes.

Only the military and the RCMP are exempt from requiring the "police" certification. The requisite qualification standard to get that certification of qualification is that t`qhe student must attain all the relevant standards required by an RCMP constable. In one stroke, that imposes a national standard on local police, armed security guards, and anyone else who wants or needs that form of carry permit.

It is rather a neat standard that is set by that requirement. It is most difficult to attack without claiming that the RCMP are not qualified well enough to be allowed to carry arms, and yet it is quite an attainable standard.

Both of the extreme positions cited at the beginning of this article are both impossible to attain in our society, and probably would do more harm than good if actually attained. The system of firearms control proposed above is simple, cheap to operate, and as protective of society as is reasonably possible. Additional controls added to it, if closely examined, will be found to add nothing worthwhile. If adopted as regulatory legislation, it is about the best we can do.

One other unusual feature of that proposed legislation -- a person who commits a crime with a weapon while in possession of a valid firearms permit gets a stiffer sentence than one who commits the same crime but does not have a firearms permit. That is because the person with a permit has committed a breach of trust as well as the crime. It is an unusual but probably effective gambit.

David A Tomlinson is the National President of Canada's National Firearms Association.




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