- Arming and Disarming: A History of Gun Control in Canada by R. Blake Brown
Amidst public concern over a series of recent high-profile shootings in the United States and Canada and the reinvigoration of the gun registration debate in Ottawa, R. Blake Brown’s Arming and Disarming provides a much-needed historical context for the little-studied issue of gun control in Canada.
In Arming and Disarming Brown gives a detailed and well-written overview of the history of gun control in Canada, from the introduction of firearms in the sixteenth century to the present. Brown finds that the debate over gun control in Canada extends back not just to the last few decades, but centuries. The intersection of social, economic, legal, racial, and gender issues contributed to the creation of gun [End Page 468] legislation, laws that periodically encouraged and discouraged the use of firearms by the general populace. Brown’s new book provides an important contribution to a field of historical study still very much in its infancy. Aside from a handful of articles and books on the issue of guns and hunting – some of which were written by Brown himself – scholarly literature is lacking. However, this impressive new survey of the history of gun control makes a significant contribution to Canadian history and opens up many doors for further research.
Most interesting in Arming and Disarming is Brown’s analysis of race, gender, and other factors to enhance what could otherwise have been a simplistic legal history. The deliberate exclusion of Aboriginals and immigrant groups from full gun ownership over extended periods of time highlights the deeply racist nature of many Canadian gun-control laws. The author also rightly points out the links between guns and masculinity. From participating in rifle shooting or hunting to prove one’s masculinity, to encouraging gun practice among youth to turn “boys into men” (105), and to the very high percentage of gun-owners who were men in the latter half of the twentieth century, Brown makes the links between the two ideas obvious. The transnational links between the United States and Canada’s gun woes were of great importance as well. Brown shows that events in the United States, such as the increase in gun manufacturing after the Civil War, led to the proliferation of guns introduced into Canada by savvy American manufacturers. The Canadian government and media constantly tried to represent Canada as pursuing a rational and responsible gun policy, compared to the supposedly gun-crazy United States. Tensions between the urban and the rural, and the working class and elites, over ideas of gun control are also made very apparent in Arming and Disarming.
A second fascinating part of Brown’s book is his depiction of Canadians opposed to gun control legislation from the 1960s onwards (the pro-gun lobby) as a social movement. This classification is especially interesting, as Brown notes this movement primarily represented “white, working-class, and middle class men” (175). His analysis shows the grassroots nature of the pro-gun lobby, which vigorously protested gun control legislation through democratic means and often achieved meaningful results. Characterizing anti-gun control groups in this way also avoids the traditional left vs right politicized narratives concerning gun control, an issue on which Brown remains markedly impartial throughout the entire book.
Brown’s source material shows much scholarly rigour: he cites not only gun-control legislation but also court decisions, advertisements, [End Page 469] newspapers, and photographic archives. Importantly, Brown’s source material and discussion include examples from all across Canada. Further, Arming and Disarming is full of fascinating and well-placed quotations from key historical figures concerning their views on gun issues.
Despite the overall strength of his work, Brown’s book contains some omissions. While it is generally quite comprehensive, one section of the book dealing with gun control in the twenty years after the Second World War is puzzlingly condensed into just two pages (160–1). Furthermore, over many decades the resistance to gun control in Canada...