The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Canada has strict gun laws. Why is Trudeau trying to soften enforcement?

The Canadian-made Enfield rifle is seen at a gun and rifle store in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2010. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP)
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A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted by a Minnesota jury. Rittenhouse was tried by a jury in Wisconsin. The article has been corrected.

Shortly after a Wisconsin jury rendered its “not guilty” verdict in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, the phrase “as a Canadian” began trending on Twitter in Canada. The relevant tweets usually took the form of incredulous Canadians spluttering how, “as Canadians,” they could not fathom how a man caught so brazenly and recklessly wielding firearms could go unpunished.

Yet if Rittenhouse had been on trial in Canada, it’s not clear that things would have turned out very differently. Not because of the verdict — Canada does, in fact, have stricter gun laws than most U.S. states, since it does not have the Second Amendment — but because being guilty of a gun crime in Canada isn’t necessarily that big of a deal. It might soon be even less so, in fact.

Canada’s previous Conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, made mandatory minimum penalties (MMPs) a hallmark of his law-and-order agenda. In most cases, breaking a law with an MMP — a category that included both violent and nonviolent firearm charges — meant a prison sentence at first conviction. It was a classically conservative initiative to curb the discretionary power of judges the right had long scorned as soft on criminals (and, specifically, wary of imprisonment). But the judges struck back, and in 2015 the Supreme Court of Canada overturned a three-year MMP for possession of a loaded gun without a “licence under which the person may possess the firearm in that place” as “cruel and unusual.”

Other MMPs were subsequently overturned by courts citing the Supreme Court’s precedent. But, as Tony Paisana, a partner at Peck and Company, told the Canadian Bar Association’s National Magazine in February, such rulings have come “on an ad hoc basis, province to province,” without much in the way of a single unifying strategy. It is this state of affairs that the reelected government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seeks to address with Bill C-5, a piece of legislation that will repeal 20 MMPs still on the books, thereby further “turning the page on the policy of the former government,” in the words of Justice Minister and Attorney General David Lametti.

Of the 20 MMPs being repealed, 13 involve firearms and will eliminate mandatory prison terms for a wide variety of gun-related offenses, including using a firearm while committing certain crimes, improperly storing or traveling with a firearm, and firearm trafficking. In most cases, the phrase “liable to imprisonment for a term of not more than 10 years” will replace earlier language demanding a “minimum punishment of imprisonment” for a year or more.

This fixation on softening firearm punishments is revealing. Mandatory minimums for other types of crime, after all, will stay on the books. The government has emphasized that MMPs will remain in place for murder, sex crimes (including against children) and treason, suggesting Trudeau’s party believes firearm-related punishments (along with drug-related ones) are the ones they’re most morally and politically justified reversing.

Why? Well, excessively harsh, mandatory punishments for gun crimes “are associated with the overincarceration of Indigenous peoples as well as Black and marginalized Canadians,” explains the official news release, making the repeal of such MMPs an essential part of the Trudeau government’s larger agenda of “rooting out systemic racism” in the Canadian justice system.

We thus arrive at a place of weird harmony between right and left. Conservatives, both in the United States and Canada, tend to believe that gun ownership — and even use — is excessively regulated and criminalized, and that dealing out harsh punishments for an over-broad array of gun crimes can be a form of state persecution against those choosing to possess a legitimate tool of self-defense. Progressives, by contrast, are often queasy about harsh punishments in general, viewing them as a symptom of a thoughtlessly blunt, vindictive and even racist philosophy of justice that’s indifferent to the root causes of antisocial behavior.

In other words, Canada’s gun laws are liberalizing in a way both sides can ideologically rationalize, though this might prove a more significant concession for the left. The fact that Canada imposes more intimidating legal regulations on the purchase and ownership of guns is often evoked as a pillar of progressive patriotism, and a moral end unto itself. Much less time has traditionally been devoted to examining the degree to which Canada’s gun laws explain its lower rate of gun violence compared with the United States. Statistics Canada has found that, where the information is known, most Canadian gun homicides occur with weapons that have not been registered or were not applicable for registration. And many have questioned whether imposing harsh punishments for breaking gun laws does much to deter those inclined to wield guns dangerously. In 2015, citing “empirical evidence,” the Supreme Court scoffed at the “frailty of the connection between deterrence and mandatory minimum sentence provisions” — but soon even this debate will become moot.

If Bill C-5 makes Canada’s gun laws even more toothless, and this fails to meaningfully affect gun violence in either direction, it could prove a useful data point in a larger comparative study of what’s actually keeping Canada the safer place.