The type of semi-automatic weapon used in the recent fatal shooting of two Ontario police officers was also used in a series of other deadly, high-profile gun attacks in Canada, including the 2018 Fredericton mass shootings and the murders committed by the B.C. manhunt suspects.
But the Russian-designed SKS rifle was not added to the federal government’s 2020 list of prohibited weapons, raising questions as to why it wasn’t included.
“The SKS, for all practical purposes, is a military weapon. It’s actually still used in militaries across the world,” said Heidi Rathjen, the co-ordinator of Poly Remembers, a gun control advocacy group set up by the families of the École Polytechnique massacre victims. “The only reason why it was not covered by the May 2020 [ban] — is because it’s not a modern design. And that is what we feel is a completely arbitrary criteria that makes no sense.”
The weapon was most recently used in the Oct. 11 killing of two police officers at a home just north of Toronto. But it was also the weapon used by two teenagers in the northern British Columbia murders that left three people dead and sparked a nationwide manhunt. As well, the SKS was used in the 2018 Fredericton shooting spree that left four people dead, including two police officers.
In 2020, the federal government announced the prohibition of around 1,500 makes and models of military-grade and “assault-style” weapons in Canada. Those models included M16, AR-10, AR-15 rifles. Since the announcement was made, the list has been expanded and now includes up to 2,000 weapons, however, the SKS is not one of them.
No word on why SKS not included in ban
The government has not given a specific reason as to why the SKS was not part of the prohibition.
According to Public Safety Canada, the prohibition applies to weapons that are semi-automatic firearms capable of rapid fire, are of modern design and are available in large quantities in Canada.
The exact number of SKS rifles in Canada is not known, but there’s likely at least a million in the country, said Rod Giltaca, executive director of the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights.
But the government may have decided to keep them off its prohibition list because they are an old design and don’t accept large capacity magazines, meaning they can’t be reloaded as fast as other more modern weapons, according to Blake Brown, author of Arming and Disarming: A History of Gun Control in Canada.
On Friday, during the federal government’s announcement of a national “freeze” on the sale, purchase and transfer of handguns, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino wouldn’t say whether there were plans to ban the SKS rifle.
Instead, he said the standing committee on public safety is currently working with all parties to make sure they have “the right policies as it relates to assault-style rifles.”
A statement from his ministry’s office simply said they are currently examining the list of prohibited weapons, but that it was too early to say what, if any additions, will be made to the list.
Popularity due in part to cost
Experts say the gun is a very popular rifle in Canada in part because it’s considered inexpensive. One Canadian website that sells guns lists the sale price of a Russian SKS at just under $600.
“At one time they were extremely inexpensive and you had rifles coming over from former Soviet republics and you could buy them by the crate,” said Windsor, Ont., based firearms expert A.J Somerset.
The SKS was developed for the Soviet Union military in the 1940s, although they were later replaced by the AK-47, Brown said. The Soviet Union allowed other countries to produce the SKS, like China and the former Yugoslavia, which made millions of the rifles.
Many surplus SKS rifles went to the United States during the 1980s and many ended up in Canada in the 1990s, Brown said.
“It’s very available. So for people who want something that’s kind of like an assault rifle, the SKS kind of fits the bill.”
They are also not restricted, meaning an individual just needs a regular firearms licence to purchase one.
“Basically, if you’re a gun owner in Canada and you own rifles, you probably got an SKS. They’re just that common,” Somerset said.
Giltaca, of the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights, said he doesn’t believe the focus should be on this type of rifle, but instead on violence in general.
“It needs serious dialogue, not just, ‘Well, we’re going to ban this gun,’ wait until more violence happens with another firearm, then ban that one.”
Rathjen, the gun control advocate, agreed the root causes of violence need to be addressed.
“But until that happens, let’s keep the lethal weapons out of the hands of ordinary Canadians,” she said, adding there was no reason for anybody to own a “fully functional assault weapon.”