The first few things a newbie gunner might notice as they enter the narrow confines of an indoor shooting range are the abrupt popping sounds, the flying shells and a sudden rush of air (the kickback of energy and breeze created as a bullet leaves the barrel). As I walk into the Calgary Shooting Centre one evening last fall, all of these sensations zoom past me before I can even think about reacting. There’s a lot of energy created when someone fires a gun, a backbeat of vibration that fills the room with nervous excitement. As I sink into the wall watching 20 or so shooters take turns aiming at paper bullseyes, I begin to question whether this is safe or even sane.
“It’s worse when you’re standing behind us,” explains Chester Liu. He smiles and beckons me towards a pistol that looks like something John Wayne would have gladly strapped to his waist. “You need to fire a gun to see for yourself properly. I’ll buy you some ammo,” he says and scurries off to grab some bullets.
I’m here with the University of Calgary Firearms Association, a student-run club. During my visit, club-appointed “range officers” walk me through how to shoot several guns. I fire a classic Smith & Wesson .22, which makes me feel a little bit like Annie Oakley; a Sig Sauer P320 (think Jason Bourne); way up to the big-daddies, a Chiappa M1-9 sporting rifle; and the pièce de résistance, a Colt AR-15 – often categorized as an assault rifle but the “AR” actually stands for “ArmaLite” – a gun said to be the most popular firearm in the United States.
At first, I am incredibly hesitant – confident that the kickback, coupled with the moving parts of the barrel, could leave me maimed and missing an eye. They reassure me it will be safe, just follow their instructions carefully and only point the gun towards the target. Before I know it, the group’s passion for the pull of the trigger grips me too. I’m finding that it’s kind of fun – OK, it’s a whole lot of fun. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.
Gun clubs are popping up on campuses across Canada. Along with U of C, Carleton University, the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and its neighbour Durham College all have student firearms associations. Students at Mount Royal University and the University of Alberta are in the process of establishing their own clubs, and several other colleges, technical schools and polytechnics across the nation have some type of firearms and skeet-shooting clubs in operation – some are run under the student-union umbrella, others are unsanctioned by their schools and are organized independently by students.
This all may seem very American, but young, well-educated Canadian adults are eager to holster up. Mr. Liu, vice-president of operations for the U of C club and a history grad pursuing a second degree in education, is one of several executives from clubs across Canada who says their group takes a more Canadian approach to guns – meaning they’re not politically motivated.
“We just want to share our passion and hobby with people. We’re not a political club, we don’t endorse or condemn any political party or person or gun law,” says Mr. Liu. The U of C association’s number one goal is to teach gun safety to those who are just getting into the sport, he explains. At each shooting event, range officers (those with gun licenses or previous experience with guns, also called ROs) guide new shooters through the process of firing off their first rounds. The club, which was established in 2013, currently has over 300 members.
“We have ROs at every single bay. No person is going to shoot at one of our meets without someone close to them,” says Mr. Liu.
Kelvin Jiang, president of the Carleton University Firearms Association, has a similar outlook. He says the Carleton club, which was reestablished in 2016 after a short hiatus, has about 40 members. And, for them, it’s mainly about sport and fun. “Our club is all about target shooting, as well as skeet shooting,” Mr Jiang says. “We also focus on education, teaching about firearms safety, with a goal of de-stigmatizing firearms,” he says. “In past years, it was a bit more political. The club previously encouraged a lot more debate about gun laws and such, but we have shied away from that because we think it scares people off. We are happy to have a healthy discourse about politics, but that’s not what our club is about.”
Mr. Jiang, a third-year arts major studying architecture history and theory, says he was 18 when he decided to sign up for the Canadian firearms course to get his official non-restricted – and later restricted – firearms license. “Guns are not something I grew up with in my family. My parents are Asian. Let me tell you, they weren’t fond of firearms,” he says with a laugh. “But, when I was 12 years old, I joined the Air Cadets and I got into biathlon and marksmanship competitions. I gained an appreciation for the sport, and I even made it to the provincial level and nearly to nationals.”
The Carleton club has five executive members, all of whom have their gun licenses — although possessing a gun license is not a prerequisite to joining the club. During each club event, the ROs give members pointers and lessons on safety, and they explain how all the firearms work before letting anyone shoot. (The guns are commonly supplied by the club executive members and individual shooting ranges.) Mr. Jiang says it takes “at least 40 minutes to prep everyone before they get to see the guns.”
While the topic of deadly weapons may seem controversial, Mr. Liu and Mr. Jiang both say they haven’t faced any opposition from fellow students at their universities. “The shock and awe of having a gun club on campus are pretty much gone,” Mr. Liu says. “Of course, it can be somewhat controversial because it’s a gun. But people are pretty open. We live in a free country, and everyone is entitled to their opinion and legal hobby.”
That’s not to say club executives haven’t faced their fair share of hurdles in establishing firearms groups at the student association level. Executive members from the University of Alberta, Carleton and U of C agree that any significant contention around starting a gun club on campus isn’t because of opposing moral or social views; hurdles come up because most student associations and university offices have strict protocols and rules around the administration of all clubs.
At U of A, student Michael Harper is running into these administrative issues while trying to establish a new gun club on campus. “As of right now, the group I am trying to start at the U of A is on hold while some insurance concerns are being sorted out. But, I have had quite a bit of interest in the group since advertising it last school year,” he says.
He says shooting is one of the fastest-growing sporting activities in Canada. “With many new people getting into or wanting to try things like hunting, skeet, IPSC [competitive shooting through the International Practical Shooting Confederation], CAS [cowboy action shooting], 3-Gun, et cetera, I wanted to start up an organization where like-minded students can come and share a passion and meet new people, as well as give anyone curious about these sports an accessible and safe outlet to try them.”
According to a story in the Queen’s University Journal in 2013, concerns about insurance motivated the university administration to rescind club status for the Queen’s Rifle Team just six months into its start. The University of Toronto closed its 88-year-old shooting range at historic Hart House a decade ago. According to media reports at the time, the shutdown was due primarily to concerns regarding political views and gun culture. The club was located on university grounds, which is where the administration drew the line. It’s one thing to have students shooting off campus, but guns on school grounds? (Administrators from Queen’s and U of T were not available to comment for this story.)
That hasn’t been an issue for the U of C club nor for the club at Carleton. “We don’t have any guns near or on campus,” explains Carleton’s Mr. Jiang. The Carleton club owns three firearms, currently licensed to Mr. Jiang, but he stresses that they are legally stored off campus. When he retires from the executive, the guns will be transferred to the next elected club president and stored, again, off campus.
“You have to do your due diligence around club rules, in general,” he says, adding that he went through a lengthy process with the Carleton University Student’s Association (CUSA), including an interview and written report, to secure club status and about $1,200 per year in student association support. The money goes towards ammunition and range materials, as well as membership at a local shooting range.
Mr. Jiang says the most critical part of managing a gun club under the student association banner is the same as it would be for any club: demonstrating fiscal responsibility and transparency. “You have to make sure you have the correct bank accounts and show them how you’re managing your funds,” Mr. Jiang says. “The hurdles aren’t about firearms for most new clubs. It’s really about organization.”
As far as CUSA president Zameer Masjedee is concerned, the firearms association has its place at the university. “It comes down to how a club like this is being positioned to students. What is the aim? When we met with the Carleton club, we got a peek into their programming, as well as how they would spend their money. Rifles are a huge part of sport – you have skeet shooting, for instance, in the Olympics, so this isn’t a concern for us,” he says. “The main things are we don’t want any firearms stored anywhere on campus or shooting activity on campus, and we’re pretty explicit about that.”
Mr. Masjedee adds that CUSA would step in if they felt that a club under their banner was causing harm to other students or infringing on student rights. “It’s inevitable that with the shootings in the U.S., students are going to be having conversations about gun laws and guns in general. That can’t be avoided. But, as long as that conversation is healthy, we encourage debate,” he says.
Over the past few years, deadly shootings in the U.S. have dominated headlines. Canadians have had far fewer tragedies, but incidents such as the École Polytechnique massacre of 1989, which took the lives of 14 female students, still weigh heavy on our hearts. Since then, there have been a few mass shootings, some of which happened on school campuses: a 2012 shooting during a robbery at U of A, in which three people were killed; in 2006, a woman was killed at Montreal’s Dawson College during a shooting rampage; and in 1992, four people were killed in a shooting at Concordia University.
Back in Calgary, Mr. Liu says he understands the strong feelings people have about firearm laws in the U.S. but he says it’s nearly impossible to compare it to the situation in Canada, where gun laws are federally regulated and there is no constitutional right to bear arms. “Our laws up here are just so different – it’s much more controlled. My personal belief is that we have a right to bear firearms, much like our American counterparts. But, I don’t believe that right extends to every firearm because not every firearm is necessary,” he says. “For instance, fully automatics, we don’t need them. You can have just as much fun shooting with a semi-automatic.”
Mr. Liu adds that his club has had contact on Facebook from people in the U.S. wanting to engage in debate about Canadian gun laws. “We sometimes get told that we should be promoting more lax firearm laws up in Canada. But our stance is simple: we’re here to bring people into the sport legally, cheaply and with as much fun as possible. This isn’t about politics,” he says, but adds that everyone in the group has their own opinions on these matters.
Mr. Liu is the proud owner of 13 guns, though he says that he didn’t “get into” shooting until his first year at U of C when he met gun club founder Delano Civitarese. “I came into it quite late. I got addicted to it because it was so much fun and then the club head-hunted me to become the new VP of operations and to help organize events, and now I love it,” he says.
While Mr. Liu is primarily interested in indoor target-shooting and skeet-shooting events, some members of the U of C club grew up in families that hunt, and that’s what drew them in. “My dad is a hunter, and when I was about nine years old, he got me out of bed at 5 a.m. and said, ‘We’re going hunting,’” says Mr. Civitarese. “I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep the night before and we ended up shooting a very nice whitetail buck,” he says. “I’ve been a lifelong hunter and my goal has always been to help people get into the sport.”
Corlia Zaayman and Regina Ruiz Ordóñez, two of just a handful of female members in the Calgary club, also come from a hunting background. Ms. Zaayman took down her first kill at 15 when she shot a zebra while hunting with her uncle in South Africa, where she was raised. Ms. Ordóñez, meanwhile, grew up watching her parents hunt in her native Mexico.
“I feel like other women are sometimes intimidated to join [the gun club] because shooting has always been primarily a guy thing,” says Ms. Ordóñez, who is an operations director for the club and a fifth-year math student. “As part of the executive team, it’s our job to show women that this club is a friendly space where everyone is welcome and shouldn’t feel intimidated,” she says. “It’s not just for country girls and boys! Anyone can do this and learn to shoot safely.”