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Dec. 6, 1989

'A slap in the face' for victims Add to ...

To the sisters and mothers and survivors marked by loss, it remains the single most tangible legacy of the bloodshed at the École Polytechnique. It's also the most tenuous.

Twenty years after a gunman took the lives of 14 women - after the trauma, the mourning, the anger and the soul-searching - families seeking to create some good out of tragedy thought they had found it with gun control.

Yet as those families gather at a Montreal ceremony tomorrow to remember their lost daughters and siblings, they are girding for another fight - after the House of Commons voted last month to abolish the registry on long guns.

"It was the centrepiece of their legacy, the biggest thing we did over the last 20 years," said Sylvie Haviernick, who lost her sister, Maud, to Marc Lépine's killing spree. "We can't in all decency let it go."

Yet the question of firearms control remains a source of discord in Canada. To opponents, the registry on most rifles and shotguns is a costly measure of dubious crime-fighting value, and it unfairly targets law-abiding hunters and farmers in rural areas.

The fault lines about the registry aren't only geographic, however. Women remain stronger supporters of gun control than men. And they argue that the long-gun registry has helped curb shooting deaths, with women among its prime beneficiaries.

Federal figures show most domestic murders involve long guns - 62 per cent of the total, according to the most recent numbers available - and most victims are women. In the past decade, the rate of spousal homicides involving firearms has plummeted threefold. To advocates, these are compelling arguments that the licensing and registry of long guns have saved lives.

"You have to conclude that stronger controls on firearms played a role in driving down the rate of spousal murders," said Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition for Gun Control. "No gun law will prevent all tragedies. This one is imperfect. But there's evidence it's had an impact. The question is, do you want to make it easier or harder for people to get a gun?"

The registry has its supporters in rural Canada, too, where homicide rates are highest. A federally funded study of rural women who'd experienced domestic violence in two Maritime provinces found that the presence of firearms made women more fearful for their safety than in homes without them.

"It's not just handguns and the goings-on in Toronto and Montreal - that's what everyone thinks is terrorizing people," said co-author Deborah Doherty, a researcher in Fredericton. "In rural homes where there's family violence, you have a family terrorized by dad sitting there with a hunting rifle. When firearms weren't registered, it contributed to women's fear that, even if police came, they may not know about all the firearms in the home."

Police forces across Canada support the gun registry. But analysts say there is no evidence to link the registry and drops in homicide. Irvin Waller, a criminologist at the University of Ottawa and founder of the school's Institute for the Prevention of Crime, says the government could have invested the billions spent to set up the registry on more effective ways to combat violence against women. He said one method involves programs to educate teenage boys in high school.

The firearms registry, introduced by the Liberals in 1995, took years to get up and running and still doesn't have full compliance, making it impossible to measure its effectiveness, Dr. Waller said. "It's basically not been operational, so there's no logic to assuming it would have any impact on anything," he said, noting that homicides have been dropping in Canada since the 1970s, well before the registry was set up.

Still, for supporters, the registry remains both a valuable tool and an article of faith - especially in Quebec, where support for it remains the highest in Canada, recent polls show.

Those touched by the Polytechnique shooting see passage of the private member's bill, which now goes to committee and then the Senate, as both a real and symbolic setback.

"It's a slap in the face to the victims and the families who considered this law the true monument to the memory of the women," said Heidi Rathjen, who was a student at the Polytechnique the day of the shooting and became a gun-control advocate. "It didn't bring their daughters back, but it eased the families' pain to know something would save many more lives than the 14 taken on Dec. 6."

***

UNDER THE GUN

5.8

Percentage of victims of handgun-related homicides in 2008 who were women

41.1

Percentage of victims of rifle- and shotgun-related homicides in 2008 who were women

 

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