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When University of Toronto sociology professor Jooyoung Lee lived in Philadelphia, he recalled AK-47s — the infamous assault rifle developed after World War II — being sold casually at a shop down the street from his apartment, along with other guns “that you see in war documentaries and video games like Call of Duty.”
The image has been seared in his brain ever since, and according to the gun violence expert, it's a scene you would never find in Canada, where gun laws are vastly more restrictive.
The comparison between the two has never been more relevant in the wake of the recent attack at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., labelled "the worst mass shooting in U.S. history." The latest tragedy has brought the 2016 shooting death toll up to more than 200 people. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has now called for a reinstatement of the 1994 ban on assault weapons, a flagship gun control measure of her husband's administration.
According to non-profit Gun Violence Archive, there have been 133 mass shootings in the U.S. this year, including the harrowing spree on Sunday more that killed 49 and injured dozens more. And the weapons used in the most recent attack — a handgun and an AR-15 type of assault rifle — are firearms closely restricted in Canada.
Loose and “bizarre” American gun laws
The reality is, said Lee, it's "very easy" to get a gun in the U.S., including a high-powered, semi-automatic weapon like the AR-15. The terrifying weapon — capable of spraying up to 100 bullets in a matter of minutes — is the same kind of gun used in the San Bernardino, Calif. terrorist attacks last year, and the 2012 shootings at a cinema in Aurora, Colo. and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn.
“As long as you don’t have a felony or were hospitalized because you were deemed criminally insane, you can walk in, go through an instant background check and buy it,” he explained. “In many states there isn’t even a waiting period.”
In the case of the Florida shooting, an assault rifle similar in appearance to the AR-15 (now revealed by multiple sources to have been Sig Sauer MCX) was purchased legally by gunman Omar Mateen, who held both security and firearm licenses, and probably paid less than $US3,000 for it. The AR-15 in particulary, retails for less than US$500 online, with an average price between US$1,000 and US$3,000. In 2012, Slate reported an estimated 2.5 million of the rifles are currently in circulation, with at least 1.5 million assault weapons already under civilian ownership.
Background checks through the FBI database are only required for in-store purchases, and even then, it’s a relatively straightforward procedure of filling out an in-store form asking if the applicant has ever been convicted of a crime or committed to a mental institution, among other questions. The store then makes a quick call to the FBI and the whole process can be completed in minutes. Denials are rare, amounting to less than one per cent.
Anyone wishing to dodge even a cursory federal background check can simply buy weapons from gun shows, friends, family, or neighbours in private sales, Lee explained. Though the Democrats tried eliminating the gun show loophole in 2013, it failed to pass in a Republican-dominated Congress.
“It’s a very bizarre phenomenon,” he told National Observer. “It’s becoming increasingly difficult to justify the civilian right to purchase these kinds of firearms en masse, especially because they’re so efficient at killing.”
How the U.S. compares to Canada
Canada's laws, said Lee, at least are "sensible."
North of the border, anyone wishing to buy a gun or ammunition must have a valid licence under the Firearms Act, and to obtain a firearms licence, all applicants must undergo a screening process, which includes a safety course, criminal history and background checks, provision of personal references, and a mandatory waiting period. The law further prohibits military-grade assault weapons such as AK-47s and sawn-off rifles or shotguns. Handguns are generally classified as restricted weapons, while rifles and shotguns are usually non-restricted.
In the U.S., California has the strictest gun laws, requiring purchasers to pass a universal background check, wait at least 10 days to receive the gun, microstamp handguns, and pass a written safety test. The state also strictly prohibits the sale, ownership, and transfer of most assault weapons, large-capacity ammunition magazines and .50 caliber rifles.
While Connecticut and New Jersey impose similar restrictions, states on the opposite end of the spectrum have few — if any — restrictions on deadly weaponry like the AR-15. Louisiana and Mississippi, for example, permit the purchase of firearms online or in a private sale without going through a background check, and permit the transfer and ownership of dangerous assault weapons, including like the AR-15.
“I think in the U.S. we have to have a better and more efficient background system to prevent people from getting these kinds of guns,” said Lee, supporting a ban on assault weapons across the country. “It’s very hard for me to comprehend why a civilian would need an assault rifle of that caliber.”
In Canada, the AR-15 is classified as restricted, but unlike in Florida — where a license is not required to purchase one — those seeking access to such a weapon in Canada must pass a two-day safety course. They must also have authorization from their province’s Chief Firearms Officer to transport the gun to a shooting range, gun show, gunsmith or a few other permitted locations.
Yet despite such restrictions, according to the RCMP, the rifle is widely desired by Canadian gun owners.
AR-15 “widely available and in demand” in Canada
There are only a few purposes for which individuals can obtain a restricted firearms licence in Canada, "the most common being target practice or target shooting competitions, or as part of a collection." Under limited circumstances, restricted firearms are also allowed for use "in connection with one’s lawful profession or occupation, or to protect life," says the national police force’s website.
Still, the AR−15 — a brand name for that particular style of rifle — is widely available and in demand, said Insp. Steve Ridout, a spokesman for Ontario’s Chief Firearms Officer. That’s in part because the patent for the rifle, which was owned by Colt, ran out years ago, allowing other companies to make their own versions, he explained.
"It’s very popular," Ridout said. "Especially since the patent ran out, there’s lots of variations of it now." Prices listed on various Canadian gun store websites ranged from around $700 to several thousand dollars.
Last month, Tory MP Bob Zimmer even tabelled a petition in Parliament to re-classify the AR-15 in Canada, so that it may be used in the "Canadian cultural practices of hunting in Canada," HuffPost Canada reported.
More than two million Canadians had firearms licences last year, according to an RCMP report. As of December 31, there were a total of 978,347 restricted or prohibited firearms registered to individuals or businesses in Canada, the report said.
— with files from Fram Dimshaw and The Canadian Press.
— Editor's Note: This story was corrected from a previous version that indicated the AR-15 (not the Sig Sauer MCX) was used in the Orlando shooting.