Michael Bourne is an educator and freelance writer living in Vancouver
Two years ago, when I registered my son for kindergarten in Brooklyn, N.Y., I had to show my driver’s licence to a police officer at the front door of his elementary school and sign a register just to get to the school’s office. Six months later, after my wife and I moved to Canada, when I showed up to register our son at his new school in Vancouver, I simply walked in.
I was a lone male stranger dressed in a large coat that could have concealed any number of weapons, but no one asked for my ID or what I was doing on school grounds. I wandered the building, lost, until I passed a child in the hall and asked for directions to the principal’s office.
It wasn’t for another six weeks, on the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, as I watched the television coverage of the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that I realized why that visit to my son’s new school had struck me as so strange: I had forgotten what it is like to live in a country with effective gun control.
As the U.S. experiences yet another paroxysm of gun violence on school grounds, I am reminded once again of the degree to which mass shootings have become such a part of American life that Americans have begun organizing their lives around them. At our son’s old school in Brooklyn, administrators used an elaborate system of timed bells and specially designated entrances and exits to allow parents to bring children to their classrooms at the start of the day and then clear all unauthorized adults from the building before the school day began. Other schools have installed bulletproof glass around the school doors and high-tech surveillance systems to head off gun violence.
My wife and I moved to Vancouver from Brooklyn in November, 2012, and in many ways the schools our son attended in the two cities are identical: racially and economically diverse elementary schools in low-crime neighbourhoods near a major metropolitan centre. But the lockdown mentality that is routine not just in Brooklyn, but in so many American schools, is simply absent here.
The violent attack that led to the deaths of three RCMP officers in Moncton earlier this week shows that there are just as many rage-filled young men in this country as there are in the U.S., and no doubt it is only a matter of time before one of them walks into an elementary school and opens fire. It could happen at my son’s school. It could happen at a school your child or grandchild attends. This is why Canadians of all political stripes must band together to prevent the dismantling of sensible gun laws that has turned far too many of America’s campuses into free-fire zones.
Canada’s gun-control laws have loosened in recent years, but even now, with some of the registration requirements dropped, ownership of the military-style assault weapons used at the Sandy Hook School in 2012 is prohibited in Canada except in rare circumstances. Those buying most guns not on the list of banned weapons must sit out a 28-day waiting period, pass a safety course, and undergo criminal and mental-health background checks.
Not surprisingly, stricter gun laws have resulted in lower murder rates. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 173 Canadians were murdered with firearms in 2009; that same year, more than 11,000 Americans died at the hands of gunmen. To put those numbers into perspective, that same year 283 people were murdered with firearms just in New York City – a figure that was greeted with celebration because it was among the lowest since the city began keeping reliable statistics.
Of course, Canada is not immune to the shooting sprees that have plagued American schools. Since the 1970s, there have been at least 10 armed attacks at Canadian schools and universities, including the Montreal Massacre in 1989, in which a young man named Marc Lépine entered École Polytechnique with a semi-automatic rifle and killed 14 women. But the Montreal Massacre, like the horrific events in Moncton, stand out here because they remain unusual.
Just two weeks ago, I became a permanent resident of Canada. I cannot vote in this country, but I can implore my new neighbours to maintain strict controls on guns, especially the military-style weaponry so easily obtained south of the border. All our children’s lives depend upon it.