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I wouldn’t call myself a gun enthusiast. I don’t get enthusiastic about guns. I just kinda like them. I like them the way I like my car, or my circular saw, or my computer. They’re tools, that’s all.

I’ve owned four different guns in the last fifteen or twenty years. All have been rifles or shotguns. I bought my first one, a WWI-era Enfield, at a shop in the Mojave Desert in the early 1990s. It was a beautiful rifle, well preserved. I loved the original wooden stock and the sleek look of it. I didn’t much like the experience of buying it, though. The shop owner wore a large pistol on his belt, not for show but for business, and he looked like he was just waiting for an excuse to use it on someone. He gave me the creeps.

I took that rifle out to the desert a few times and shot some cans with it. The rest of the time, it leaned in a corner of my bedroom, loaded and unlocked. At the time, when it came to gun safety, I was an ignorant fool.

I purchased my second rifle at a gun show in Pomona, California, a couple of months later. I certainly didn’t need a second gun–you could argue I didn’t need the first gun–but I was lonely and bored with life in the desert, and I had money burning a hole in my pocket. From a man sitting in a lawn chair in the parking lot, I bought a Russian-made semi-automatic SKS, which held ten rounds in a clip and could therefore fire ten shots in as many seconds. I paid one hundred dollars cash for it. The only safety check built into the process was that the seller couldn’t let me buy the ammo at the same time. I had to walk to my car, put the gun inside, then go back and retrieve the box of rounds. I found the whole situation so odd that I was in a daze on the way home. The strangest thing for me was that there was absolutely nothing illegal about that transaction. I could have been anyone, and I could have used that gun for anything.

I hung onto those guns for less than a year. When I departed from California, I left them in the hands of another gun store owner, having fired each of them only a handful of times.

Many years later, after moving to Nova Scotia, I got interested in hunting, and I learned how to handle a pump-action 12-gauge shotgun that belongs to a friend of mine. I decided I wanted one, too. Things were a little different now that I lived in Canada, though. Before I could even consider buying a gun, I had to pass a firearms safety course. This was offered one weekend at a rural rod & gun club not far from my home. While the curriculum wasn’t exactly challenging, I did learn a number of things about handling guns that neither the shop owner in the Mojave nor the man in the lawn chair in Pomona had bothered to tell me. These things all had to do with gun safety, and they had to be mastered before I could be issued a personal acquisition license (PAL) by the federal government. If I’d had a criminal record, either in Canada or the States, I would have been prohibited from getting a PAL, maybe for a certain length of time, maybe forever.

Without a PAL, you can’t legally buy a gun or ammunition in Canada, period. Of course, some people do buy them on the black market. Most of these are handguns that have been smuggled up from the States. The people who buy these guns are criminals who couldn’t pass a background check, and who probably intend to use them for criminal reasons. It’s possible to own a handgun legally in Canada, but that requires a separate safety and handling course, and the restrictions under which a handgun is allowed to be used, transported, and stored are extensive. I know personally only one private citizen in Canada who owns a handgun, and the only reason she’s allowed to use it is for target shooting. When she takes it anywhere, she has to lock it in a case that is stored in a specific way in her car, and the key has to be in a secure location. Nowhere in Canada is a citizen allowed to carry a handgun for protection, either concealed or openly. The very concept of carrying a gun as you go about your business is foreign to Canadians.

I use my guns for hunting, but the truth is, having them in the house does make me feel a little safer, regardless of what the statistics might show about this not being true. I brought a certain amount of American paranoia with me across the border. When my wife and I were watching Michael Moore’s BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, I was astonished at the scene where he simply walks into various homes on the Canadian side of the Detroit-Windsor border, just to show his viewers what would happen. “He’s gonna get shot!” I hollered at the screen. My Canadian wife looked at me like I was nuts. “Why on earth would you shoot someone for walking into your house?” she asked.

It’s the kind of question only a non-American would ask. I don’t think people should be shot for walking into your home, but I’m never surprised when someone is. Yet the Canadians who’d just suffered this home invasion at the hands of the portly Moore were perfectly understanding. Violence was the furthest thing from their minds. They seemed to assume he was merely lost, or possibly hungry, and they all shook his hand and invited him in–a formality, since he was already in. Moore succeeded in proving his point to me. Americans live in fear. Canadians, even those who live just a few miles from the US, don’t.

I’m glad I had to take that safety course, because it means I know how to handle and store my guns safely. I’m required by law to keep a lock on the trigger of each gun at all times, except when I’m actively hunting. The key has to be stored in a separate location, and the shells and ammunition have to be in yet another place. All these things–guns, keys, ammo–have to be kept out of the reach of children. In our weekly paper, there are always articles about people who were found storing their firearms unsafely and had them confiscated by the RCMP. There are never articles about kids getting their hands on Mommy’s Glock or Daddy’s AR-15 and accidentally killing themselves, or another child.

This kind of policing would cause an uproar in the US, of course. It would bring about all manner of dire predictions of tyranny and fascism. Yet Canadians don’t even blink. It’s just the way it is, and no one seems to mind.

I think gun safety courses are an excellent idea, and I think everyone who wants to own a gun should have to take one. A safety course wouldn’t have prevented the shootings in Newtown, Aurora, or Columbine, to name just a few that stick out in my memory, but they might prevent lots of other deaths. I know my training has kept me from making some stupid mistakes, such as leaving a loaded rifle leaning in a corner. But all these restrictive gun laws are not the only reason Canada has a vastly lower rate of gun death than the US out of all proportion to the per capita rate of gun ownership. Things are very different here in Canada all around.

It would be silly to argue that America needs to become more Canadian. Really, it’s not even possible to compare the two countries. Canada has one-tenth the population of the US, which means regulation is much easier. It also has a different history. Americans cling to their guns as one of the last vestiges of rugged individualism, which is the quality that allowed us to steal the country from the Native inhabitants and European colonizers, conquer the wilderness, and turn it into parking lots and shopping malls. Canadians, on the other hand, never waged a war for independence against an occupying army, and the majority of this unfathomably huge country remains unsettled.

The main difference is: gun ownership here is treated as a privilege, not a right. And this, I think, is a far more sane approach. But if the recent massacre in Newtown, Connecticut don’t convince the Second Amendment quoters of that, I don’t expect anything will.

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