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public safety

Eaton Centre shooting, handgun ban, long-gun registryAfter the trauma of the Eaton Centre shooting, the idea of banning handguns, even bullets, has an obvious appeal. But would it make any real difference to the level of gun violence in the city?

Handguns are already classified as a restricted weapon under federal law. You need a permit and licence to have one. Ottawa has tough rules on safe storage and transport. As police chief Bill Blair puts it, "handguns are very well regulated in Canada."

He says 70 per cent of the guns seized by Toronto police are smuggled in from the United States, where the number of guns is "vast" – about 270 million, by one estimate. In light of those numbers, the notion of ending legal handgun ownership here seems like an empty gesture.

The idea of a blanket ban goes back to David Miller, who led an emotional appeal for one when he was mayor. It has been taken up by the families of two young men shot to death in the city's club district four years ago while sitting in a car. They took their campaign to Queen's Park this week.

Now Adam Vaughan, a downtown councillor often mentioned as a possible candidate for mayor in 2014, is pushing to prohibit the sale, storage or use of ammunition in the city. He says the number of guns in the city is "astronomical," and "the harder we make it to buy and store ammunition, the better off we'll be."

Except that, according to Chief Blair, most of the bullets fired in Toronto street violence, like most of the guns, come from south of the border. Banning the sale of legal ammunition would mainly take it out of the hands of long-gun owners like hunters, not street gangs. When reporters asked him about a ban on bullets, the chief said, "I'm just not convinced that would be an appropriate remedy." Any gun control, he added, "has to be done in balance with a recognition of the rights of Canadians with respect to the lawful ownership of property."

Mr. Vaughan says the right to public safety must trump the rights of gun owners. "You have to register a dog, but when you start talking about guns, people get all romantic or emotional about it." Now that the Conservative government has killed the long-gun registry, he asserts, gun control is eroding in Canada. "Our federal government is stepping away so we need to step in at the city," he says. "We're walking into an environment that is starting to resemble more and more that of the United States."

That seems a little overwrought. The Tories may have killed the long-gun registry, which was widely resented in rural Canada, but gun laws and regulations are as strict as ever and sentences for gun crimes have, if anything, grown tougher. Many now carry U.S.-style mandatory-minimum jail terms.

It is already against the law to buy ammunition in Canada without a federal firearms licence. To get a licence, you need to clear a criminal-record check and undergo mandatory training.

Does anyone really think that banning the sale of bullets in the city would keep Toronto's street thugs from finding a way to load their weapons? City councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong notes that it is not as if "these guys are going into the Bass shop to buy hollow-point bullets." He says that Mr. Vaughan's notion of using zoning bylaws to restrict bullets would not work in any case – or so he has been told by city staff.

Even Mr. Vaughan says his ban-the-bullet initiative is not aimed so much at street crime as at suicides and domestic shootings. He says he started working on the idea well before the Eaton Centre shooting. Part of the motive is to combat the city's gun culture.

Everyone is on board with that. But the answer lies with enforcing the laws the we have and slowing the flow of guns across the border, not resorting to symbolic measures like banning the bullet or the handgun.