The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Justin Trudeau has a gun-free Canada within his reach

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announces new gun-control legislation in Ottawa on May 30. (Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press via AP)

When Roe v. Wade was overturned in the United States on June 24, much of the ensuing commentary expressed at least grudging respect for the Republican Party’s skill at playing “the long game.” The constitutional right to abortion, after all, was something conservatives had been chipping away at since Roe was decided back in 1973; securing its overturn, nearly five decades later, was testament to the power of staying stubbornly fixated on a political goal.

Are there any comparable “long games” being played in Canadian politics? Aside from schemes to dissolve the country itself, the goal that most readily springs to mind is the progressive dream of a gun-free Canada — an achievement Prime Minister Justin Trudeau might come close to achieving before his time in office is up.

As Canadian politicians on both sides are fond of repeating, there is no Second Amendment in Canada, no constitutional right to gun ownership. There is not even a clearly articulated constitutional right to property in Canada — meaning that the ability to possess guns has never been any more legally secure than the right to own any of the random consumer goods Ottawa might feel the need to regulate, restrict or ban.

The Liberal government of Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, was the first to begin the process of systematically banning entire categories of firearms. New powers granted to the executive branch in 1969 allowed government to declare certain types of guns “prohibited,” with automatic and sawed-off shotguns the first to be banned, in 1977.

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In 1995, following the 1989 murder of 14 women at Quebec’s École Polytechnique, the government of the elder Trudeau’s Liberal successor Jean Chrétien expanded these powers with the Firearms Act, which the prime minister called the toughest gun-control legislation in the Western world. Legal ownership of guns was made much more onerous, and a slew of makes were banned, including “military style” rifles of the sort the Quebec shooter used, and cheaply made, short-barreled pistols much demonized as “Saturday night specials.

In 2020, following a massacre of 22 people in Nova Scotia, Justin Trudeau evoked the powers of the Firearms Act to instigate what his administration characterized as a flat “ban on assault-style firearms,” which in practice amounted to adding 1,500 types of guns to the prohibited list. In October, the prime minister declared a “handgun freeze” as a prelude to an outright handgun ban, promising “it will no longer be possible to buy, sell, transfer, or import handguns anywhere in Canada.”

In recent weeks, Trudeau’s ambitions have turned even grander, introducing amendments to his marquee gun-control bill that would see a mere handgun ban give way to “the largest gun prohibition in Canadian legislative history,” with government gaining power to ban most of the shotguns, semiautomatics and hunting rifles not already prohibited in Canada. So lengthy is the 307-page list of soon-to-be-banned makes and models that no one has had the appetite to tally up the total: “thousands” tends to be the safest estimate.

Trudeau’s government has come under growing fire for the sloppy nature of the arguments it has used to rationalize a sweeping ban that seems mostly ideological in motive. But the sort of patriotic-but-nervous suburbanite voters who form the backbone of the Liberal Party will likely care little about a government blunt-forcing its way toward a Canada with almost no legal-to-own guns at all, given the degree to which they associate firearms with crime and the United States — two consistently crowd-pleasing targets for Canadian politicians.

The only possible sticking point remains Canada’s estimated 3 million legal gun owners, most of whom live in the country’s vast rural stretches who often own firearms for hunting or self-defense. Even if gun ownership is not a right, the sheer size of Canada’s gun-owning community — one of the largest in the world — has long been viewed as a moderating force on how aggressively government can move in good conscience against firearms. It’s a caution born less of fear than of a sort of lingering reverence for the idea of “rural Canadians” as an identity group deserving of respect on their own terms.

The rural Canadian serves as proxy for people who exist outside urban assumptions: the farmer, the oil-field worker, the trucker. An economically important community, but also one steadily shrinking as a constituency of much political importance (especially for the political left) and accordingly, one that a Canadian political class increasingly dominated by residents of Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal feels empowered to ignore.

Trudeau’s grand gun-banning campaign ties up the loose ends of a decades-long effort. His government’s halfhearted, condescending assurances to rural voters that their hunting rifles aren’t being targeted when they very obviously are offers a glimpse of a country that has fulfilled a destiny of another sort. Twenty-first century Canada is now quite unambiguously run by and for the residents of its major population centers, captive to their anxieties, passions and biases at the expense of those of others. A nation that once sought great meaning from being a land of the untamed wild now has little interest in an identity that’s anything other than urban.