Critics of a federal government online questionnaire on gun control say it suffered from vague questions and manipulation after results showed at least three-quarters of responses oppose new limits on access to handguns and assault weapons.
The federal government has been exploring a possible ban on handguns and military-style rifles since last summer, after a lone gunman walked down Toronto’s Danforth Avenue with a .40 calibre handgun, killing two people and wounding 13 others.
Shortly after the Danforth shooting, Minister of Organized Crime Reduction Bill Blair began consultations on a potential ban, including running an online survey between Oct. 11 and Nov. 11 of last year to gauge national attitudes toward firearms. Respondents answered a series of questions about where the federal government should focus resources to curtail rising gun crime across the country.
According to documents released under Access to Information legislation, the government received 134,917 responses to the multiple-choice portion of the survey, with the vast majority registering opposition to any kind of new restrictions on Canadian gun owners.
Just over 76 per cent of responses were “no” to a question asking whether more should “be done to limit access to assault weapons.” A comparable share, 80 per cent, said nothing more should be done to “limit access to handguns.”
Similarly, 75 per cent of responses answered that government efforts to limit handguns and “assault weapons” should be focused on illegal guns alone and not legal firearms.
Mr. Blair encouraged Canadians to fill out the online survey, but some people have raised concerns about the fairness of the questions and the integrity of the platform.
François Bellemare, a Quebec-based engineer and member of the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights, said he alone submitted between 25,000 and 35,000 responses using a computer automation application called Macro Recorder.
“I’d go to bed at nine, when I woke up at five in the morning, I’d have maybe 4,000 votes,” he said.
Mr. Bellemare said the questions were biased, nudging respondents to answer in favour of increased gun control. “Since they were rigged questions, I do feel like I’ve done nothing wrong in just answering rigged questions,” he said.
Criminologist Irwin Cohen said the questionnaire suffers from an array of methodological problems, including overly ambiguous questions. “One question says ‘Should more be done to limit access to handguns.’ I don’t know what that means. Does it mean a registry? A ban? The questions are extremely vague.”
Dr. Cohen, who holds the RCMP research chair in crime reduction at the University of the Fraser Valley and has done extensive research on firearms issues, said he found the results don’t square with more scientific polls he’s seen.
“And that might be because of the nature of how it was conducted. It would seem like you have a passionate group of people who decided to make their views clear. If this had been a random sample, I would venture to say that you would not find such skewed results.”
Questions were raised about the progress of Mr. Blair’s consultations last week after the government of New Zealand, following a mass shooting that killed 50 people at two Christchurch mosques, imposed a semi-automatic military-style rifles ban in just six days.
A spokeswoman said Mr. Blair is hoping to complete a report on his months-long engagement efforts “soon.” In addition to the online survey, Mr. Blair held a series of roundtables over several weeks last year with a range of stakeholders as part of his consultations.
“We know that a comprehensive approach to firearm and crime prevention is built on making offences more difficult to commit; more likely that offenders will be caught; and establishing meaningful consequences,” Marie-Emmanuelle Cadieux said. She did not address questions about possible manipulation of the survey.
In Canada, handguns fall into a category of restricted weapon that the RCMP logs through a central registry. A version of the registry released to The Globe last year shows Canadians own 943,785 handguns.
A definitive count of “assault weapons” is much harder to compile, as the category is nearly impossible to define and often includes some non-restricted guns that have gone untracked since the former Conservative government removed all non-restricted firearms from the central gun registry in 2012.
Heidi Rathjen, co-ordinator of the gun control advocacy group PolySeSouvient, said the contrasting approaches of New Zealand and Canada doesn’t reflect well on the federal government.
“It shows we are sorely lacking in political leadership and courage when it comes to gun control,” she said.
Ms. Rathjen added the results of the online questionnaire are simply evidence of the gun lobby’s strength. “To me it’s clear from the survey results that the gun lobby mobilized and swamped the consultation process.”