OTTAWA — In a scene more common in Canada’s neighbor to the south, a shootout at a Toronto bowling alley last weekend left a suspected gang member dead. A 29-year-old woman was caught in the crossfire and later died at a hospital.
For a country proud of its largely peaceful streets and much lower levels of gun violence than in the United States, a recent rash of gang-related shootouts has captured public attention and reignited calls for stricter gun controls.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is heeding those calls, announcing this past week a proposed law that would require more detailed background checks for gun owners and force retailers to maintain records of gun sales for at least 20 years.
The move comes as the United States is grappling with the fallout from the school shooting last month in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 dead and prompted a renewed wave of legislative efforts to tighten gun laws. It also sparked the March for Our Lives, which attracted hundreds of thousands of teens and adults at protests against gun violence in Washington and in cities across the country Saturday. Similar marches also took place in Canada.
Canadian Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who proposed the gun-control legislation last week, has used official government statistics to point out that gun-related homicides in Canada are “up by two-thirds” since 2013. He recently convened a special guns-and-gangs summit in Ottawa to map out possible actions to counter the trend.
The minister’s claim of sharply higher gun crime has since been challenged by criminologists and statisticians, who argue that 2013 had the lowest homicide rate in almost 50 years and that the overall rate of firearm homicides in Canada is up but not dramatically so.
Firearms are already much harder to acquire legally in Canada than in the United States, and the frequency of gun-related violence is markedly lower. But there is a long tradition of hunting and firearm ownership, particularly in rural parts of the country.
The previous Conservative government successfully courted the pro-gun constituency and in 2012 dismantled the decade-old firearms registry for rifles and shotguns, which was criticized by opponents as a waste of money and an intrusion into the right to hunt and shoot. Mandatory registration of handguns and other weapons deemed restricted and prohibited remained in effect.
The Trudeau government’s proposal would force all firearms vendors to maintain records and inventories of transactions and keep those records for 20 years. The records would be accessible to police only if they first obtain a warrant.
Goodale said the government did not intend to revive the scrapped firearms registry and is proposing a system similar to the record-keeping required of gun sellers in the United States. But Sheldon Clare, president of the National Firearms Association, the most outspoken of Canada’s gun-owner groups, called the move the start of a process of “civil disarmament” and a backdoor path to a new government registry system.
“It’s another unnecessary set of firearms-control regulations and a regime that will have nothing whatsoever to do with preventing any crimes,” Clare told a radio station in Vancouver last week.
The legislation would also require the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which issues firearms licenses, to examine a person’s entire life for potential problems, including criminal convictions. The current requirement mandates a five-year background search.
The new law would tighten rules on transporting restricted weapons, making it necessary to obtain authorization each time owners wished to take their guns anywhere other than a shooting range or club.
According to Statistics Canada, a government agency, there were 223 firearm-related homicides in Canada in 2016, 44 more than the previous year. In Toronto alone, there were 51 firearm-related deaths in 2016, almost double the 27 reported a year earlier. The United States, which has roughly 10 times the population of Canada, reported 11,004 firearm homicides in 2016.
Yet criminologists note that Canada’s homicide rate has been in decline for more than 20 years and that even the rate of gun-related homicides is virtually unchanged over the past decade. It’s only by being selective in the years being compared that it looks as if there has been a surge, they say.
Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition for Gun Control, said she was pleased that the Trudeau government was following through with its 2015 election promises to tighten gun control but that she wasn’t convinced that the changes were significant.
She noted that the supply of restricted and prohibited firearms has more than doubled in Canada over the past decade and said she was concerned that a firearm like the AR-15 could still be sold as a restricted weapon.
A.J. Somerset, an author and gun owner from London, Ontario, who has studied gun culture in Canada and the United States, said that legal acquisition of a firearm remains much more difficult in Canada than in most parts of the United States. Before buying a gun, an individual has to take a mandatory one-day safety course (two days if it’s a restricted weapon), and go through a detailed background check and a mandatory 28-day waiting period. The whole process takes at least 45 days, Somerset said.
In the case of restricted weapons, like the AR-15, there are strict rules for storage and transportation of the firearm. “You can only shoot it at an approved range, and you need a permit to transport it to an approved place,” Somerset said. “You can’t just throw it into the trunk of your car and drive around with it.”
Somerset said that the two major gun problems facing Canada are the large number of suicides with firearms, which are usually legally acquired, and the surge in gang-related shooting incidents. Many of the weapons used by gangs are firearms smuggled into Canada from the United States. “We have a very porous border,” he said.