Gun advocates’ changing definition of ‘assault rifles’ is meant to sow confusion

A restricted gun licence holder holds an AR-15 at his home in Langley, B.C., on May 1, 2020. JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press Blake Brown is a professor in the department of history at Saint Mary’s University. The decision of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to carry out his 2019 campaign promise to prohibit many semi-automatic rifles has sparked another round in the gun-control debate. Gun lobby groups allege that advocates of stronger firearm laws unfairly label firearms such as the AR-15 “assault rifles.” Historical evidence, however, suggests that members of the firearms community have themselves played word games with guns, changing how they describe some weapons in response to shifting political winds. In fact, many gun owners once called the AR-15 and similar weapons assault rifles. They only abandoned this term because of fears that the federal government might ban these firearms in the aftermath of the 1989 Montreal Massacre. A search of Canadian newspapers in the 1970s and 1980s reveals a widely held, though colloquial, understanding that an assault rifle was a semi-automatic weapon with a large capacity magazine that was often a civilian version of a gun originally designed for military service. Let me point to just a few of the examples of gun retailers and owners using the assault rifle label. In the Calgary Herald in 1976, a seller offered an “AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle.” In 1982, an Edmonton company, MilArm, advertised “Assault Rifles” including AR-15s and Ruger Mini-14s. Klondike Arms & Antiques of Edmonton sold the […]

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