Archive for the ‘law’ Tag

Again About Guns – Maybe A Starting Point For Discussion?

Like any sane and reasonable person, I was sickened and saddened to hear of the massacre at the cinema in Aurora, Colorado. And I felt somewhat compelled to put out something of an op ed piece on it.

First off, I am a gun owner. I used to own more than I do now, not that it matters, but I own firearms, like millions of Canadians do. I don’t begrudge people for owning firearms, whether they own them to hunt, or to control predators on a farm, or to shoot recreationally at a club. I shoot trap, skeet, and pistol and enjoy doing so. These are sports that require responsibility to practice, and that responsibility should be significant and backed up with good, sound laws.

I cannot for the life of me understand the hold that the NRA has on US gun politics. I don’t understand when it became reasonable to try to argue that any sort of legal controls on the ownership of firearms is somehow reprehensible or unacceptable. They of course point to the Constitution, selectively quoting the Second Amendment. Thing is, I’m often reminded of The Princess Bride – you say these words, but I do not think they mean what you think they mean.

The Second Amendment says: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” I cannot help but opine that while they saw the important of maintaining firearms for myriad reasons in those days, and felt that the population ultimately should be entrusted with the responsibility of owning firearms if they chose, that they did not anticipate the way it would be interpreted. Of course, that’s my opinion and there’s a wide array of scholarship on the subject that I’m not going to wade into here.

The fact is, when people say “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”, they’re semi-correct. In Canada for example there are some 8 million firearms in circulation in public hands, if memory serves. The overwhelming majority will never be misused by their owners, they’ll be handled with due care and caution, because those owners have accepted the responsibility that comes with them. The fact is, however, that the presence of firearms in our society brings about the risk of misuse, and we’ve seen that with terrible consequences. A firearm can turn an argument into a homicide very quickly. It can turn anger into atrocity. So it simply isn’t acceptable to allow them to circulate freely.

The trick, then, is to try to balance the concept of allowing responsible citizens to do what they want (which is more or less the crux of a free society) with protecting the public from those deviants. This is why when “the left” starts to scream about banning firearms (or other stupid ideas like Toronto City Counsellor Adam Vaughn’s “brilliant” banning the sale of ammunition in the city!) I just dismiss them. It won’t work. Guns came out of a sort of Pandora’s Box. Banning them will not work. They aren’t going away. In Canada, most of the guns used in crime weren’t legal in the first place, and those who have them aren’t going to care about a ban. Vaughan’s banning ammo sales is ludicrous because people who don’t have firearms licenses can’t buy ammunition legally anyhow, and besides, if it was banned in the city, they’d just go elsewhere. But all the same, they can’t. No card, no signature on the ledger, no ammunition. I don’t see whoever was responsible for the Danzig Avenue shooting tragedy having popped into Lebarons, flashed a PAL, and bought his rounds. I could be wrong, sure, but I doubt it. In the States, well, that’s an even more complex situation, since so many are in circulation.

It’s not just the anti-gun side of the house that I find have issues. Some on the right are certifiably nuts, and some simply have an unrealistic view of what they would have done had they been there. Talk is cheap.

I’m galled by people saying, “Well, I have a concealed carry permit, if I had been there, I’d have intervened!”

Bullshit. Utter bullshit.

Even most well trained shooters, people whose jobs put them at far greater risk of dealing with a gunfight, find it extremely difficult to avoid going into “Condition Black” during such an event. The brain activates the “fight or flight” response, and without a great deal of training and practice it is extremely difficult to overcome the physiological changes that are happening to be able to think clearly enough to draw a weapon, acquire a target, and successfully engage it. Add to that, in the case of Aurora, that the environment was a large, dark room filled with smoke or some sort of tear gas, and I find it incredibly unlikely that most people could actually have done anything. There’s no info as to whether anyone was carrying the other night – and I find myself skeptical that anyone would admit they were having done nothing.

The other thing that is grinding my gears is the right saying, “leave it to the left to politicize a tragedy.” This is total nonsense. A tragedy that can only be solved by political means must necessarily be politicized. I hate the phrase “never waste a crisis”, but it is apt. Massacres are horrific but they are what prompts people to think more critically than usual, to break down some of their preconceptions, and to really actually shift their views. I would lay money on the most pro-gun, NRA talking point bleater changing their tune about gun laws if it was one of their loved ones who was killed at Aurora. Or Danzig Avenue. Or Virginia Tech. Or wherever. These events shift those people’s perceptions because they force them to think. They have to be politicized, and I doubt too many victims’ families would be offended by that. If they were, I’d have some questions to ask.

So my suggestion to liberal types is to work on presenting reasonable ideas that achieve the noble aim of reducing gun violence is to actually get informed about firearms (because frankly, a lot of you lose arguments before they start because you don’t know what you are talking about), and work toward a compromise proposal. Fact is, a lot of people who own firearms are not NRA type nuts, they believe that reasonable laws are possible without restricting them too much. Compromise has become a bad word in politics both in US and Canada, but that’s the only way to get anything done here.

Maybe, just maybe, some good can come out of this most recent horror if we start thinking about how to approach it all better.


Captain Semrau – Sentencing Pending

Well, Captain Semrau faces his sentencing this week, the “sentencing phase” of his court martial began today, and not surprisingly, the media was rife with speculation on what the decision would be.  Some Charter challenges were presented by the defence today but apparently all of them have failed.  I didn’t read in great deal what they revolved around, some had to do with punishments available, some had to do with the legitimacy of the trial in general.

It’s not really looking that great.  A fairly senior Canadian officer, Brigadier General Denis Thompson, was widely cited in the press today saying that in his view, implying in the view of  leadership of the CF, there’s no choice but to dismiss him from the CF with disgrace.  His exact words, cited in every major daily, were “This particular conduct, in these particular circumstances, is such a blow to the credibility to the institution that as a deterrent I don’t believe we have any other option than to release him from service,”

Arguing the counterpoint was at least one troop that spoke highly of Captain Semrau saving his life, of his cool demeanor, and all the other features sought in an infantry officer.  These are meant to present his character as being of a high standard, I would guess to suggest that he is indispensable to the organization.

I have to agree, to a large extent, with BGen Thompson – at least on the big picture terms.  According to the Laws of Armed Conflict and the ideas contained in the Geneva Conventions which are basically beaten into everyone who serves in the Canadian Forces, what Capt Semrau did was undeniably wrong.  The individual, the Talib, was by the terms of reference hors de combat, out of the fight.  At that point, he cannot be harmed in any way and must be offered whatever assistance may be reasonably provided.  It does seem that there was no assistance possible – the Talib had been basically shredded by 25mm chaingun fire.  All the medical care in the world wouldn’t have done a thing to help the guy – and according to the law nothing at all gave Captain Semrau the right to shoot the man.

I still cannot reason out a position on what should actually be done with the man.  Reading court martial decisions, as I do from time to time just to see what stupid things soldiers get up to, the judges rendering sentences always highlight the purpose of military justice and the aim of sentencing – one of which – a key point – is to provide a strong deterrent to others.  A message needs to be sent in this case to the rest of the Canadian Forces that is clear that the choice made that day was the wrong one, that it was seriously wrong, and that it should never happen again, and that’s the argument you’ll see for a strong punishment, whether it is imprisonment (which I think is probably very unlikely) or the dismissal of the convicted from the Forces.  It is for this reason I expect to see such a strong sentence, though I have absolutely no cause to celebrate it of course, to feel good about it.

What has astounded me has been the debate on the matter, both within and outside the Forces, and I have been following both.  Universally it seems few people can’t empathize with the decision, but still, many seem to think that the whole thing should have been buried.  Frequently I find myself reminding them – or seeing others remind them – of one of the darker periods in the history of the Canadian Forces – the “Somalia Affair”, when the murder of a Somali teenager by the name of Shidane Arone who had been detained by members of 2 Commando, Canadian Airborne Regiment,  came to light.  The crime had been covered up as best as possible but a military doctor broke the secret and the whole thing came out.  The CF was embarrassed, and the Canadian Airborne Regiment was actually disbanded as a result.  The CAR’s history and end are a subject of many other works, and I can’t delve into it much, save to acknowledge that what happened in Belet Huen that night was the crime of a very few, and I’m most saddened that it was used to besmirch the honour of an entire Regiment.  I’ve had the privilege of serving with and being instructed by many who were Airborne, and have had the chance to hear their tales of what Somalia was like and the problems that led to that event.  Had this incident been “buried” it surely would one day have come to light and we would go through the same mess, to the benefit of no one.

I still can’t say with conviction that doing the same thing would not have crossed my mind, that I would have been in the same dilemma as Rob Semrau faced that day before he acted.  I can say now that I know exactly what I’d have to decide, but not that I’d necessarily like it.  In that way, I suppose, the court martial has accomplished some measure of deterrence already.

On The Complex Case Of Captain Semrau

Although it doesn’t seem to be getting a massive amount of attention in the media, the curious case of Captain Robert Semrau is starting to get interesting with the trial now underway at Kandahar Airfield. Capt Semrau is an infantry officer from the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, currently standing trial on a murder charge relating to the death of a Taliban insurgent in a remote part of Helmand Province, Afghanistan in October 2007 (if I recall correctly).

Captain Semrau, by all accounts an outstanding soldier who began his military career in the UK with The Parachute Regiment, was charged after returning to Canada after a tour where he served with an Operational Mentoring & Liaison Team (OMLT, pronounced “omelette”), training the Afghan National Army.

According to what’s available, following a short fight with the Taliban, a mortally wounded insurgent was left on the battlefield. The ANA & OMLT outfit led by Capt Semrau determined they could offer no medical assistance of any value to the man, who was disarmed and lay dying. It is alleged that after telling the others with him to leave (reportedly “You shouldn’t have to see this”) that Capt Semrau administered something of a merciful ending, shooting the man dead.

This is a complex matter and one I’ve struggled to come up with a position on – and so far I have not settled on what I think. I’ve never been in the position, obviously, and I can’t begin to imagine what would have run through his mind. Here is a man, an enemy fighter who has just tried hard but failed to kill you, now dying before you. You have the power to end his suffering on determining that you cannot save him, something which you have an obligation to do despite the absurdity of the idea perhaps. What would you have done?

The clear textbook answer is that if indeed Capt Semrau shot the insurgent dead in cold blood after the battle – even if out of a well-intentioned sense of mercy to the man, he has committed murder. It was not for him to make that decision even if it was a morally reasonable thing to do. The fact that this guy was indeed an enemy, an insurgent, is irrelevant in the eyes of the law.

The reality I’m sure is more complicated and absurd. It’s a prime example of shades of grey, I think. I don’t envy anyone involved in the case – any of the witnesses or the lawyers or the judge, because the absolutes of the law are going to be hard to reconcile with a just decision in the matter.

I was annoyed when the charge was laid that some folks came out immediately screaming that the idea of charging a soldier – an officer – with murder in a war zone was wrong before any facts came out. Members of the armed forces are granted legal authority to use deadly force – they exercise the State’s monopoly on violence – but that does not mean there are no limitations or restrictions thereupon. The reality of the history of warfare is that horrendous murderous atrocities have happened any time we fail to be civilized and take up arms against each other for whatever reason. They are as much a part of war as anything else.

Much of the training I’ve experienced as a soldier involves decisions about appropriate use of force and making that call to shoot or not to shoot, and it is something taken most seriously. This case seems not so much about that though, and much more about the idea of a “mercy killing”. I have a much harder time reconciling a stance on that than anything else.

By all accounts Captain Semrau was a decent, disciplined, dedicated and loyal soldier, faithful to his duty and lawful authority. I think I believe the idea advanced that he was a man of compassion, who, confronted by a man slowly fading in some manner of mortal agony, did what he felt was the right thing in ending that suffering rather than leaving a fellow human being to so awful a fate. I don’t see what justice would be served by having the law insist he should have simply left, done nothing.

That, of course, is the rub. What to make of what the law says… For that there is indeed no easy answer.

Back to Canadian Politics – About Guns, Eventually.

Now that health care reform is quieting down in the US, I’ve started taking a look at what’s going on more locally.  Canadian politics is an interesting beast, particularly right now.  We’ve got a Conservative Prime Minister with a fairly strong minority government.  If you’re an American, here’s a quick explanation of how our system works.  Unlike the US, we don’t have a two-party system.  Canada’s got three major national parties, and a regional party that winds up with a lot of seats, and actually has wound up the official opposition before.  We don’t have a separate executive branch, we have a fused legislative and executive function, consisting of a bicameral Parliament.  The House of Commons (think the House of Representatives) consists of 308 elected members.  Customarily, the leader of the party with the most seats in the House of Commons is invited by the Governor-General, the Head of State, to become Prime Minister, the Head of Government.  The other chamber, the Senate, is appointed.  It’s called the chamber of “sober second thought”.  Plans to reform the Senate float up, including an elected Senate, but they never really get anywhere.  The Canadian Senate’s a whole other issue I’ll maybe tackle some other time.

Anyhow, when the part with the most seats doesn’t have more than 50% of the seats in the House of Commons, the situation that exists is known as a “minority government”.  The government requires the cooperation (or at least, the abstention) of other parties’ representatives in order to pass legislation.  That’s the current situation, and it’s led to all sorts of dramatics.  While the current PM, Stephen Harper, seems to be somewhat reviled, his main contender, Michael Ignatieff, doesn’t have much support either.  When Ignatieff blusters, Harper threatens to make any measure a confidence measure, meaning that if the government is defeated it loses the confidence of the House and the government falls.  Since Ignatieff knows he cannot win an election, that’s usually enough to shut him up.

Anyhow, the latest dramatics started before the Olympics, when Prime Minister Harper trundled over to Rideau Hall, the Governor-General’s official residence, to ask the Queen’s Representative to prorogue Parliament – to shut down the government essentially, extending the Christmas break until after the Games were over.  Their claim was that they wanted to make sure they had a focus on the big show in Vancouver.  The scuttlebutt was really that the government wanted to avoid the brewing scandal over detainees in Afghanistan.  Whether that’s really the case is fodder for many many other blog posts, and beyond what I’m interested in.

I’m really circling without getting to the point I want to blog about, but the backstory is somewhat important.

Prorogation causes any pending government bills to “die on the order paper”, and quite a few did.  One that didn’t is what I wanted to write about because it’s now getting some attention.  It’s Bill C-391, which scraps the Long Gun Registry component of Canada’s gun control policy.  The LGR is probably the single most controversial aspect of the policy, one that is universally reviled by gun owners, cost far more than it was supposed to, and in my opinion, delivered absolutely nothing of value to Canadian taxpayers.

Following the Montreal Massacre, where Marc Lepine, a disturbed misogynist shot and killed fourteen women at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique, there was public demand in Canada for more effective laws to prevent gun violence.  The Firearms Act, Bill C-68, was brought into effect in 1995.  Along with reworking licensing for gun owners it required the registration of of all firearms.  Previously handguns were subject to registration, but longarms weren’t.

The registration wound up costing some $2 billion, far beyond the projected cost, and continues to cost $75 million per year, and the Auditor General found a lack of evidence that it improved public safety in Canada.  Every dime spent on its ongoing maintenance in good money being thrown after bad.  You’d think, of course, that that’s reason enough to spot pouring money down the drain, money that could be channelled into actual public safety – whether it’s more efforts at dealing with gun smuggling, keeping kids out of gangs, fighting domestic violence more effectively, whatever else might work.

But you’d be wrong.  The anti-gun lobby in Canada seems to think that it’s a worthy investment.  And it’s tragically wrong.  The Long Gun Registry has become the very model of a white elephant, a useless gift to a special interest group that consumes massive amounts of resources (to wit, cash), provides little if any value, and is basically impossible to get rid of.

I’m a gun owner.  I pared down my collection (not that it was ever large) before I moved just to make things easier, but I owe handguns and one of those “evil” semiautomatic rifles that anti-gun people hate so much without even knowing what they are – a Chinese Type 56 Carbine, the venerable SKS.  Norinco SKS clones are cheap – or rather were, and there’s so much ammo for them floating around that it’s just fun to take to the rank and blast away with.

I play by all the rules, including the registration requirements, because the dealers I buy from do.  In truth, compliance isn’t a big deal, it’s just that I begrudge the whole process since it’s so wasteful.  I don’t get what it accomplishes, though I also don’t play with the paranoia that some have that somehow the man’s going to come confiscate my hardware.  That being said, tell that to owners of Norinco Type 97s who bought them legally only to have the RCMP decide to recommend they be reclassified as prohibited.  I wonder what people who paid $3,000 each for Tavors are thinking, worried if the same will happen to them.

My actual biggest grudge with the gun laws here is the ludicrous “Authorization To Transport” process for restricted firearms.  In Ontario, as a member of a gun club, I had to apply for a Long Term ATT – which allowed me to take my restricted weapons to and from the range – any approved range in the province – but via most direct route, no stops or nothing.  If I deviated and couldn’t justify where I was when I happened to have firearms with me, I’d face prosecution.  The ATT process is particularly stupid because it’s basically a rubber stamp.  Buying a handgun for example requires a restricted PAL (firearms license) and a reason.  The reason is always target shooting, which requires membership of a club, and the club applies for your LTATT.  They are basically NEVER declined, so what the hell is the point?

When I moved here, though, for example, I had to call, talk to some pinhead at the CFO’s office, explain the move plans, give them the dates and times, and wait for the paperwork (mercifully they faxed it), then do it all again when my move dates changed.  It’s just silliness.

The thing is that the anti-gun crowd spins the whole thing as though C-391 is going to somehow open some sort of font of gun violence.  When I ask them why they think so, some of them answer as though they think that the entire license process is being scrapped (it’s not), that the changes apply to handguns (they don’t), and so on.  It’s just frustrating to try to have a discussion on an issue when those most passionate about it prove to be the most ignorant.

And of course, there’s to much static in the discussion, meaningless statistics, and claims about universality of opinion that it’s hard to really explain.  The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, a political lobby group, supports it – yet I’ve never met a cop who claimed it was of any value – and some 900 cops have told MP Garry Breitkreuz that it’s useless.  His website actually has a lof of great info on the topic, so if you’re interested, go and take a look.  It’s quite enlightening.

What really bugs me isn’t restricting firearms ownership – to me that’s a reasonable and prudent public policy, but it’s spending the money spent on the issue stupidly.  That’s what gets me, we have these sacred cow programs that really don’t do anything.  A penny spent on the LGR is money that could be (as I said above) paying more cops, or more customs officers, or after school programs, after all.  It’s instead being poured down a very large drain, and we are getting nothing for it.

One of the best examples of this is the rather ridiculous project embarked on by the Toronto Police Service.  Toronto has a gang and gun violence problem, to be sure.  So what did they do to address it?  They looked up people whose licenses had expired (and who in many cases were in the process of renewing), and seized their firearms.  But since there’s an amnesty on, and the search and seizure was legally a little sketchy, in a lot of cases they just took the firearms into storage while the paperwork is sorted out.  While this plan did get some unwanted weapons off the street, sure, it really didn’t do much at all.  Most of what was seized were old shotguns and hunting rifles, not exactly the handguns that are being brought in for gangsters.

They claimed it was some huge success, and I laughed, because it wasn’t really much of anything, other than an intrusion into private citizens’ lives more or less for a technicality.  You know it’s bad when the Toronto Star has a columnist (whose shotgun was seized) attacking them for how silly it was.

Ultimately, if the registry sticks around, whatever.  I don’t care that much about it, because the vast majority of the money is already gone and can’t be retrieved, but it’s sad that we live in a country where people who know so little about an issue make so many decisions about it.  I’ll give you a great illustration.  I mentioned the Montreal Massacre above.  The rifle that Marc Lepine used in that terrible crime was a Ruger Mini-14, a common, popular target and varmint rifle.  It’s a semi-automatic, gas operated rifle in .223 Remington calibre, fed by a detachable box magazine.  It’s called the Mini-14 because it basically scales down the US M14 rifle’s gas system.

Today, Mini-14s remain non-restricted weapons, but interestingly, AR15 type rifles are restricted by type.  AR15s, for the uninitiated, are the civilian variant of of the M16 type rifle, the C7 used in the Canadian Forces.  But if you want a technical description, well, here it is.  An AR15 is  a semi-automatic, gas operated rifle in .223 Remington calibre, fed by a detachable box magazine.  Sound familiar?  Same as a Mini-14. Why’s one restricted and the other not?  No one has ever really been able to tell me, though I’ve heard some amusing rumours, like Wendy Cukier of the Coalition for Trampling on the Rights and Freedoms of Law Abiding Citizens Gun Control looking through a Guns & Ammo annual buyers guide and picking what looked “scary”.  I don’t think it’s that simple, but it may just as well be.

The point I’ve tried to make is that while some gun laws are logical, reasonable, suitable to a civilized society, the ones we have just aren’t good, and getting rid of bad ones doesn’t mean making it a free-for-all, we just are acknowledging our failures and reallocating resources more effectively.