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Reviewed by:
  • Arming and Disarming: A History of Gun Control in Canada by R. Blake Brown
  • Denise Brunsdon (bio)
R. Blake Brown, Arming and Disarming: A History of Gun Control in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press for the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, 2012).

Canadian legal history books are not known for inciting controversy, but Arming and Disarming is as close as it gets.1 R. Blake Brown walks a tight and impressive balancing act by keeping the reader engaged in his detailing of our country’s unique and oscillating relationship with gun control while sidestepping the topic’s political pitfalls. Brown’s strength is in his ability to use legal history to paint a portrait of our country’s development while injecting entertaining irony into the genre. As well, he has an ability to pick apart the modern day rhetoric by adding much-needed perspective without treading into today’s hyper-partisan debate.

Our History through Legal History

Arming and Disarming demonstrates the ability of legal history to capture Canadian society’s growth and change driven by political and social conflict. Sexism, racism, class antagonism, labour unrest, the Temperance movement, sectarian violence, Québec versus Ontario competition, world wars, the Great Depression, and our complex relationship with the United States have all influenced—at one time or another—our gun control policy:

As will be shown, changes in Canadian gun culture led to legislative action …or inaction. A broader perspective also means that the history of gun control can shed light on changing attitudes towards minorities, definitions of masculinity, liberal thought, state formation, constitutional rights, and a host of other topics, for, as Martin Friedland recognized in [End Page 427] the mid-1970s, a “history of Canada, social, political and economic, could be written based on the history of our gun control legislation.”2

This storytelling approach reveals two dissonant realities outside of the typical assumptions held vis-à-vis gun control. The first is the permanence of the law. Nothing captures the transience of legislation—the ebb and flow of law—like the history of gun control. The second is the impact of our nation’s historical motivations for gun bans. It is no wonder that tensions run high in an alleged public safety debate when the root of gun use regulation, starting with Aboriginals, was a form of punishment that was applied to marginalized and denigrated groups. The chapter “Angry White Men: Resistance to Gun Control in Canada, 1946–1980” outlines how the transition from gun control that exempted white men to gun control that included them—and the subsequent loss of privilege—gave root to the passionate gun advocacy that we see today.

Making Legal History Fun

This book is engaging for anybody remotely familiar with the modern-day nature of the gun control debate, thanks to its well-researched and counter-intuitive findings. For example, at one point in the early 1900s, Saskatchewan had the strongest gun laws of any province in Canada, with fines of up to $1,000 and potential hunting licence revocation for any hunter who accidentally shot another person. Similarly, the now-defunct post-Montreal Massacre gun registry is not the first defunct Canadian gun registry. Canada has had two prior iterations. The first pistol gun registry was enacted during the Great Depression. The second registry, a much wider one that included all firearms, was enacted during the Second World War. One major reason for the new push to control firearms was fear of Canadian residents and citizens who had emigrated from the nations against which Canada had fought in the First and Second World Wars. There was local paranoia that Bolshevik or Austro-Hungarian Empire sympathizers might take up arms domestically as an extension to the European conflict. Another reason for the timing of these early version registries was quite simply pragmatic. It was the first time in Canadian history that government officials felt they had the bureaucratic and policing forces necessary to support such a sizeable gun control infrastructure.

The book even points out that R. v Wiles seemingly closed the door on a major part of the gun control debate when Supreme Court of Canada Justice Louise...


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pp. 427-430
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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