We Canadians love to praise ourselves for owning far fewer guns than Americans, and we don’t fixate on an ambiguously punctuated constitutional right to bear arms, because none exists. Moreover, north of the 49th parallel, school shootings, such as last week’s massacre in Sante Fe, Tex., not only draw intense interest; they provide an opportunity to stoke the national myth that we’re less besotted with firearms than our neighbors to the south.
Problem is, Canada’s federal gun-control laws are a lot less robust than many Canadians realize, as confirmed by a recent attempt by Justin Trudeau’s progressively styled Liberal government to update said rules.
Canada consistently ranks very high in international gun-violence stats, leading almost all other jurisdictions except the United States, which is the global outlier. As gun expert and investigative journalist Iain Overton wrote in the Globe and Mail in 2016, “Canada has a gun problem.”
This political paradox was reinforced this month when 75 Quebec groups and individuals called on the Trudeau Liberals to toughen up the gun-control legislation currently before Parliament. In particular, the signatories want the government to ban the semiautomatic used in a massacre at a Quebec City mosque.
Last year, 27-year-old Alexandre Bissonnette — radicalized by a phobia of newcomers from Muslim-majority countries, as well as the rhetoric of anti-immigrant politicians — gunned down six mosque worshipers and injured 19 others, among them a man who was left paralyzed. Bissonnette used his legally owned rifle in the attack.
And the Liberals’ response? A hedgy statement from Ralph Goodale, the minister public safety and emergency preparedness, pledging to consider the idea, but noting it was probably impossible to amend the Criminal Code in the way the petitioners have urged. “What is being proposed here,” Goodale said, “is a complete renovation of the classification system in the Criminal Code, and that is a pretty massive undertaking.”
Canadian gun-control laws are constructed around a three-tier classification system. Weapons are categorized as “un-restricted,” “restricted” or “prohibited” based on characteristics as opposed to specific makes and models. Hunting rifles, for example, tend to be unrestricted, whereas some handguns and converted automatics are prohibited.
For years, says veteran Canadian gun-control advocate Wendy Cukier, Ottawa devolved the management of classification process to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which could add new models to the various categories with a procedural move (known as an order-in-council) that didn’t require legislation.
In other words, the police had the authority to regulate the law — a bureaucratic approach that has spurred criticism. “Unfortunately, this system results in classifications that are not consistent with the risks of many weapons,” according to a recent brief from a Quebec group that includes survivors of the Montreal massacre. “Indeed, despite the general objective of banning assault weapons of both 1991 and 1995 legislative reforms, weapons designed for military purposes have become more accessible.”
While the National Rifle Association doesn’t operate directly in Canada, there is definitely an active gun lobby, especially in rural areas and Western Canada. Using the rhetoric of gun rights, it wields plenty of clout.
Case in point: the fate of Canada’s national long-gun registry. In December 1989, a decade before Columbine, a man walked into a Montreal college and shot 14 women — at the time, the worst mass killing in Canadian history. In 1993, following various failed attempts to restrict semiautomatic weapons, the Liberal government of the day began creating a mandatory registry of long guns, in effect requiring owners to obtain licenses, as well as submit to background checks.
The registry, burdened by spiraling cost overruns, had the backing of police agencies — cops made good use of the registry, especially when investigating domestic assault calls — and urban voters. But it attracted vehement opposition as well. Framing the registry as a wedge issue, Conservative Stephen Harper became prime minister pledging to kill the registry, and, in 2012, came through on his promise, which included the destruction of the registry’s database above the objections of some provincial governments.
After Harper dismantled the long-gun registry, Cukier notes, imports to Canada of restricted and prohibited firearms skyrocketed – 2 million rifles, shotguns and handguns brought across the border for retail sale between 2012 and 2017, with the number of restricted weapons jumping by more than 5 percent in 2016 alone. (There are about 10 million firearms in Canada.) “The U.S.,” she says, “currently has better control over sales of rifles and shotguns than we do.”
While Trudeau had in the past supported the long-gun registry, his Liberals defeated the Conservatives in 2015 in part by promising not to resurrect this registration system. Instead, they promised measures meant to tighten up Canada’s gun laws, such as probing more deeply into the backgrounds of gun owners. (The Quebec government earlier this year launched a provincial gun registry, although no other provinces have yet followed suit.)
Yet the Liberals have hardly charged ahead with their gun-control promises, even though the government’s own statistics show a steady and troubling increase in gun-related homicides in Canada since the mid-2000s. Instead, the Liberals have tended to spoon out bits and pieces of their reform package in direct reaction to widespread Canadian media coverage of devastating shooting tragedies in the United States.
In fact, when Canadians talk about gun control, they much prefer to focus on the fireworks in the U.S. debate over Second Amendment rights than their own laws — a weird bit of cognitive dissonance has allowed Canadian policymakers to exploit voter indignation while slyly avoiding conflict with gun-owners.
It’s true that Canadians who want to buy a gun have to jump through more bureaucratic hoops to get a license. It’s also true that there are simply fewer firearms per capita here than in the United States. Despite those realities, the growth of gun crime and gun smuggling suggest a festering problem that demands more attention than it’s been getting.
Cukier comes back to the 2017 mosque shooting – a legal weapon and background-check protocols that missed mental-health and radicalization red flags. The Liberals’ changes, she argues, wouldn’t have stopped Bissonnette, nor the shooters in a few other high-profile shootings. “That incident does raise questions about how rigorously the laws are being applied. We could do a lot better.”