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New gun law spares semi-automatic rifle used in B.C. bank shooting

SKS rifle unaffected by Bill C-21 despite its use in high-profile police and civilian killings
A gunfight between police and two brothers armed with semi-automatic rifles happened outside a Saanich bank on June 28, 2022. The two brothers, who were believed to be targeting police, died while six Greater Victoria officers who responded suffered injuries as a result of the shootout. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

When two Vancouver Island brothers entered the Bank of Montreal in Saanich two summers ago, each was armed with a semi-automatic rifle featuring an extended magazine.

It wasn’t a typical robbery as security footage showed the brothers being in no rush as they took hostage those unlucky enough to be inside the bank at the time.

Law enforcement agencies believe that was because Mathew and Isaac Auchterlonie had a specific goal in mind – to draw in a large response so they could inflict as many police casualties as possible. After 16 minutes, the brothers walked outside and encountered six responding officers, leading to a barrage of bullets being traded outside the bank.

In the end, both brothers were fatally shot and all six officers were wounded. Three sustained injuries that were deemed life-threatening at the time.

The brothers’ gun of choice to shoot police was the SKS semi-automatic rifle. Their non-restricted SKS firearms were bought legally either at brick-and-mortar stores or online, but several modifications had been made to up the capacity, making them prohibited items.

In recent years, the Russian-made gun has been used in several high-profile killings of police and civilians.

Despite the federal government capping 2023 by enshrining new legislation addressing “assault-style firearms,” the SKS remains available to civilians.

The Liberals’ Bill C-21 received Royal Assent in December after a difficult year of trying to get it through Parliament. The bill ushers in new measures to keep firearms out of the hands of domestic abusers, bans illegally made “ghost guns,” increases maximum penalties for gun trafficking and cements the government’s freeze on handgun sales.

The changes make the country safer “as far too many Canadians have been affected by gun violence,” said Tim Warmington, a spokesperson for the federal public safety ministry.

The bill also bans assault-style firearms if they fall under a new technical definition, classifying models as prohibited if they meet four criteria. One of those conditions is the gun must be designed or manufactured after the bill came into force on Dec. 15, 2023. That means SKS semi-automatic rifles, which date back to the 1940s, are unaffected by Bill C-21.

But that wasn’t always the case.

The Liberals were set to ban the SKS and hundreds of other assault-style models through the legislation. However, they faced pushback from federal Conservatives, firearm rights organizations and some Indigenous groups who said they were commonly used for hunting. The government ultimately scrapped wording that would have included the contentious models in Bill C-21’s scope.

That decision drew scorn from gun control advocates, including PolySeSouvient, which said misinformation led to the government backing down. PolySeSouvient was formed after a gunman killed 14 women at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique in 1989.

In a statement to Black Press Media, the advocacy group said the SKS is an assault weapon that should be banned.

“It’s (literally) a military weapon and has been prominent in mass shootings and shootings of police officers,” the gun control group said.

A man who killed his three children and former partner in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. last fall was armed with an SKS. Another case saw one of Canada’s largest manhunts sparked in 2019 after two Port Alberni men used SKS semi-automatic rifles to shoot and kill three people in northern B.C. One of their two SKS rifles was legally bought in Nanaimo.

Beyond the Saanich bank shooting, police officers across Canada have also been caught in the SKS line of fire. Two Ontario police officers were killed with an SKS during a 2022 house call and the rifle was used in a 2018 Fredericton mass shooting that killed two constables and others.

SKS firearms belonging to Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod, the two men who killed three people in northern B.C., leading to one of Canada’s largest manhunts in 2019. (RCMP handout)

Victoria and Saanich police officers were injured during the 2022 bank shootout. Black Press Media asked both departments for comment on the SKS still being available to the public and whether they’d like to see it face more regulation.

In a statement aligning with the one released by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police on Bill C-21’s passing, Saanich police Chief Dean Duthie said his force supports the changes that address ghost and replica guns, as well as family violence and self-harm involving firearms.

“The legislation aims to protect victims, survivors, communities, and officers and strives to mitigate the impact of the worst outcomes of firearms,” Duthie said.

VicPD said it doesn’t have anything to offer on the topic at this time.

PolySeSouvient remains hopeful the SKS will be banned. The group pointed to Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc committing to review the status of guns that were set to be banned through the dumped Bill C-21 amendments.

The ministry confirmed it is re-establishing the Canadian Firearms Advisory Committee (CFAC) to examine the classification of firearms on the existing market. Appearing before a Senate committee in late 2023, LeBlanc said CFAC’s review will also “identify those that qualify as hunting firearms for exclusion from a future order-in-council to ban all existing assault weapons.”

Canada’s gun lobby, however, argues SKS rifles don’t share features of assault-style firearms and said they haven’t been used by a relevant military in half a century.

“The idea that the SKS is too dangerous for licensed gun owners to possess is absurd,” said Rod Giltaca, the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights’ executive director. He noted Canada has a robust licensing system that includes background checks, personal references and more.

Nobody knows exactly how many SKS guns exist in Canada, but there are somewhere between 700,000 and one million in circulation, according to Giltaca. The rifle is popular because it’s inexpensive and its ammunition is readily available, he added.

Asked what the government can do to ensure the SKS isn’t used to harm Canadians, the gun rights campaigner asserted that any firearm can be used for deadly purposes against people.

“No amount of laws will stop human beings from using violence if they are determined to,” Giltaca said over email.

However, Giltaca said the government isn’t utilizing a current tool as he claimed officials only check 10 per cent of the personal references provided by those applying for a firearms licence. Black Press Media has asked the government if it considers that percentage accurate, but has not yet received a response.

“The personal reference check is one of the most important tools that can be used to determine if someone is fit to have legal access to firearms,” Giltaca said.

PolySeSouvient is not the only gun control group that wants to see the SKS banned.

“Consistent with our view that a comprehensive assault weapons ban should cover all semi-automatic weapons, we urge the federal government to ban the SKS,” Canadian Doctors for Protection from Guns said in a written statement.

“The federal government is supposed to be reviewing such assault weapons that were not included in the 2020 ban list, it is time for them to move forward.”

That 2020 list refers to the 1,500 assault-style guns the Liberals banned in the wake of a mass shooting in Nova Scotia that year where 22 people were killed.

Monday (Jan. 29) marked the seventh anniversary of a gunman killing six men and injuring 17 others inside Quebec City’s Islamic Cultural Centre. The mosque’s co-founder Boufeldja Benabdallah released a statement regarding Bill C-21 alongside PolySeSouvient last May.

“An ineffective ban on future assault weapons and no ban on current ones means that new models will continue to enter the market and tens of thousands will remain legal and non-restricted, including the infamous SKS, a Soviet military weapon that has been involved in several recent mass shootings in Canada.”

READ: Brothers aimed to kill police, didn’t expect to survive Saanich bank shootout

Jake Romphf

About the Author: Jake Romphf

In early 2021, I made the move from the Great Lakes to Greater Victoria with the aim of experiencing more of the country I report on.
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