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Opinion Trudeau’s sweeping gun control bill is no knee-jerk reaction

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference in Ottawa last week. (David Kawai/Bloomberg)
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Gun violence in the United States is beyond catastrophic. According to the Pew Research Center, “45,222 people died from gun-related injuries in the U.S.” in 2020 — and the violence is not abating. Recent high-profile massacres in Buffalo and Uvalde, Tex., have focused national and international attention on the issue once more, but Congress is unwilling to root out the problem.

In Canada, it’s a different story.

After the Uvalde and Buffalo shootings — but not because of them — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government announced firearm-control legislation. Bill C-21 includes a suite of measures to regulate and limit guns in the country. Central to that plan is a freeze on buying, selling or transferring handguns. But that’s not all. On top of the current assault rifle ban and prohibition on owning “assault-style weapons,” the proposed changes would limit magazine capacity, remove gun licenses from domestic abusers, ban the sale of certain toy guns that look like the real thing, and create red- and yellow-flag laws to remove firearms from those who might be a risk to themselves or others. The legislation also would boost penalties for gun crimes and increase police officers’ ability to deal with weapons-trafficking and gun violence.

Gun crime in Canada is up, and so is gun ownership. As Statistics Canada reports, “After a gradual decrease between 2009 and 2013, the rate of firearm-related homicides has increased since 2013, with a single decline in 2018.” The group also notes that firearm-related violent crime accounts “for just 2.8% of all victims of violent crime reported by police in 2020”; 277 victims of homicide were killed with firearms or firearm-like weapons that year. Far more gun deaths in the country come from suicide.

Yet Bill C-21 is not a knee-jerk reaction to U.S. shootings, nor did it emerge from the ether. In 2020, Trudeau banned “assault-style” weapons after the deadliest mass shooting in the country’s history took place in Nova Scotia. The government tried to pass stricter gun-control legislation in the last Parliament, but the bill “died on the order paper” when the country went into an election at Trudeau’s request. The Liberals campaigned on the issue. They have been slow to get the job done but they haven’t hidden their intentions.

Critics of the legislation say parts of the law, such as the handgun freeze, will do nothing to keep Canadians safer while targeting law-abiding gun owners — what they see as politics in the typical Liberal style. The government’s rationale is that limiting the supply of guns will limit the number of potential vectors of violence. Over time, combined measures will reduce guns in the country and thus reduce gun crime and self-harm, assuming the measures work.

The logic seems sound, but is it specious? A 2020 study of gun-control legislation in the country from 1981 to 2016 suggests measures were ineffective. Perhaps new measures will be more successful. But that depends in part on whether Canada can deal with the illegal firearms trafficked into the country from the United States. That’s a big if.

Columnist Sandy Garossino makes a good case that better is indeed possible. And sometimes you need to take the evidence and try something, then adjust as you go. The government should be honest about what it’s trying to do, and what the limitations and trade-offs to its approach might be. Yes, the new law also targets legal gun owners and limits their privileges. (Gun ownership isn’t a constitutional right in Canada as it is in the United States.) Yes, the rollout is full of the typical politics of bravado, certainty and superiority that mark contemporary democratic discourse. Yes, we ought to be critical of over-policing and assuming problems can be dealt with by harsher sentences. Yes, the measures might fail. But some might succeed.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino told me Tuesday, “We are at a critical juncture; we cannot afford to be complacent.” Complacency leads to inaction, he noted, and inaction generates its own violence, indifference and inequity. He’s right, but the bill will be well served by heavy scrutiny and a government open to amendments from the opposition.

The bill will likely pass. The Conservatives might stall the bill — they’ve already tried by way of filibuster — but it should get done. The government has time and stability thanks to support in the House of Commons from the New Democratic Party, whose members will likely support much in C-21. Mendicino says the government has support from survivors of gun violence, police, municipalities and, he expects, Canadians more broadly. On top of it all, the government has the benefit of a country that isn’t obsessed with gun culture and has a far weaker gun lobby than the United States does.

However, if the Liberals truly want to tackle long-term gun violence and deaths, they ought to be open to amendments. In the face of new evidence and a changing national and international landscape, they must keep a close eye on how they can do better.