A.J. Somerset is the author of Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun
In the politics of gun control, timing is everything. Canadian Doctors for Protection from Guns (CDPG) made its debut in early February, and might have attracted little attention had the Christchurch, New Zealand, massacre not focused our brief national attention span on guns. An oafish campaign of vexatious complaints to the College of Surgeons organized by the Canadian Coalition for Firearms Rights (CCFR) helped also to bring attention to the doctors’ cause, which is, in short, more research, swift passage of Bill C-71 and a ban on handguns and assault weapons.
The need for more research is undeniable. About six in 10 firearms homicides involve handguns, and most handgun murders are gang-related; but we have no data, nationally, on how gangs get guns. As for long guns, which account for a third of gun homicides, we know even less.
How many of the long guns used in those murders qualify as assault weapons? Nobody knows. How many assault weapons do Canadians own? Nobody knows. What does “assault weapon” even mean? Nobody agrees – and our gun lobby gleefully confuses the matter.
We do know that only one in five gunshot deaths is murder. The rest, save for a few who die by accident or at the hands of police, are suicides. How many such suicides are by handguns? We don’t know. How many by assault weapons? We don’t know.
Here, CDPG can lead. Suicide itself is a health problem. Gun suicide is, in the U.S. National Rifle Association’s obnoxious term, in the doctors’ lane. And CDPG has repeatedly stressed the importance of the suicide problem. But CDPG is not proposing an anti-suicide strategy. It proposes only a general ban on handguns and assault weapons. Essentially, this is a shirt labelled one size fits most: There’s a good chance it won’t fit you at all.
Suicide is not a gun problem. That is, guns don’t cause suicide, and guns account for only one in five suicide victims. Rather, guns are a suicide problem: They make suicide, especially impulsive suicide, all too easy. It does not help to ban handguns, while leaving shotguns in the home. We must separate suicidal people from all their guns.
But how? We rely on people, and on their families, to recognize a problem they may not fully understand and are all too ready to deny, and we expect them to come forward. Should they come forward, our gun laws are not designed to help. They are designed to punish.
Acknowledge suicidal thoughts, and you stand to see your guns confiscated and destroyed, and your licence revoked. If that seems a small deterrent, consider this: Those guns may be worth thousands of dollars. This is the outcome the law allows.
It is not designed to help people – but it is help that a suicidal person needs. We need a more compassionate Firearms Act, one that allows for temporary licence suspensions and for guns to be sold or kept in trust until a crisis has passed.
But no one will come forward unless they recognize the problem. And we are too often in denial. We do not recognize when we have problems, or we expect things to blow over. Gun owners tend to deny guns themselves are a problem – especially when anti-gunners say that they are. A person who is determined to kill himself will kill himself regardless, they say.
How can we break through distrust and denial? In the United States, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has partnered with the National Shooting Sports Foundation – the national trade association of the firearms industry – to create a suicide prevention toolkit for gun retailers and shooting ranges. As strange as it seems, here is an area where Canada can learn from the United States on guns.
Imagine: Federal and provincial governments might co-operate to fund a suicide education program, developed by mental-health professionals and delivered through target shooting and hunting organizations – a program that would work together with a more compassionate Firearms Act with the sole aim of reducing suicide by firearm.
But pro-control groups will not concede that suicide is not a gun problem. Neither will anti-control groups concede that guns are a suicide problem. Our pro-control lobby has not been open to any move that relaxes the law. Neither do the CCFR and its strident supporters seem likely to co-operate with anyone, or to stand quietly by as others co-operate. Not as regulation moves forward elsewhere.
As it must: We must fix our classification system when it comes to assault weapons. At the very least, we must control them more strictly than we do. Rising extremism, particularly right-wing extremism, cannot be ignored.
So we must learn to ignore our most strident activists. Moderates must marginalize them. Canada needs solutions, and those solutions must go beyond simply tightening laws. And we will not see those solutions until the adults in the room put the children to bed, and sit down to work together.